Okanagan Skaha School board stands firm on Trout Creek closure

Okanagan-Skaha trustees said they will not be asking for a special adviser to review their choices.

Standing behind their decision to close three schools in the district, Okanagan-Skaha trustees said they will not be asking for a special adviser to review their choices.

This comes one week after Penticton MLA Dan Ashton said the Minister of Education has offered to pay the costs of an adviser to the board should they request one and that more than $266,000 in administrative savings would be returned to the board.

“We have answered every letter that has come in. We have responded to every request. We have responded to every bit information the ombudsmen has asked for, yet we have been accused of stalling. We have been accused of hiding things. We have been accused and especially our staff has been accused of being inept. We have been accused of all of these things and we have not been able to stand up and say no. We believe in the process that we had,” said board chairperson Linda Van Alphen.

Van Alphen said the $266,000 just isn’t enough money to keep the schools open. She said she heard about the reimbursement before the formal announcement, and emailed both MLA Linda Larson and Dan Ashton beforehand.

“I said it is great news we are getting the money back but I also said we feel that it is unfair to give people false hope, because it is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things,” said van Alphen, noting that the school district wasn’t formally notified about the press conference Ashton was planning to hold on their property.

The school district expects to save $1.187 million this year through the school closures, but added it isn’t just about the immediate savings.

“That would be year after year that we wouldn’t have to spend that ($1.187 million) on those schools,” said van Alphen.

Van Alphen wouldn’t say Ashton overstepped any bounds in the announcement when he called for the reimbursement to be used to keep schools open and the Okanagan School District to bring in a special advisor, but did say that she felt he was under a “tremendous amount of pressure” from the Trout Creek community.

“He lives very close to the school, he went to the school, his children went to the school. I believe that is where he was coming from,” said Van Alphen.

The board also voted at their meeting on Monday that they would wait until September enrollment numbers to decide what to do with the returned funding that came from administrative cuts, rather than one motion that was put forward to save Trout Creek school with the money. A majority of the board suggested it could go to frontline services.

“Enough is enough we had a lot of verbal abuse, people mouthing obscenities at us and our staff while we have been in meetings,” said Van Alphen defending the board decisions to upset parents in the gallery. “If you think that is something that is correct it is not, it is inappropriate and what are we showing our children by acting like this?”

Vice-chair Bill Bidlake said he would like to wait to hear the ombudsmen’s report on the school district process that the parents had asked for rather than start another review. Bidlake also said he cannot support using the funds to keep one school open.

“I wish there was enough funds to keep all three (schools) open but there is not. Although this is a difficult decision to make, I would rather see the $266,000 spent directly in all the classrooms rather than just classrooms in Trout Creek.”

The lone trustee who wanted to request an adviser and to not wait until September to allocate the funding was Bruce Johnson. He agreed the board’s decision to close Trout Creek, West Bench Elementary and McNicoll Park on June 30 was a very thorough process but did not see the harm in an adviser corroborating their decisions.

“You are right, we have nothing to hide. You said if we choose they will come and validate that. I’m saying yeah let’s choose that, let’s take them up on their offer,” he said.

In his reasoning, Johnson said they already have top-notch frontline services for all students and keeping Trout Creek open would affect every student in Summerland.

“We already have one of the best districts in British Columbia and maybe in all of North America. Our graduation rates are way up there, our Aboriginal rates, you go all the way down the social and emotion aspects, academics and intramurals. One of our schools got top school in B.C. We are already are helping a whole ton of kids. We are making more and more advances every year with that. I’m saying one last time, that we use the money to keep Trout Creek open.” he said.

Chair Van Alphen said they have lived up to their duties as trustees by producing a balanced budget. She added using the funds to keep Trout Creek open is not feasible because they would be losing money in their budgeting for 2016-2017.

Van Alphen also said there is no reason to consider a special advisor.

“It has to be extraordinary circumstances. We are a very well managed district, we are known for that for being conservative and well managed,” said van Alphen, adding she doesn’t see any part of the school closure process requiring that sort of extraordinary intervention.

“We are sticking with the ombudsman right now, and he is looking at our processes,” said van Alphen. “Whether the process was fair, that is all he looks at.”