Trout Creek Elementary may not be closing after all, thanks to a new fund announced by the province Wednesday.
Premier Christy Clark announced a new Rural Education Fund, aimed specifically at keeping schools like Trout Creek Elementary open.
The announcement came as a surprise to Linda Van Alphen, chair of the Okanagan Skaha School Board. The district was planning to close three schools, she said, and what she called an “eleventh hour” funding announcement changes the picture.
MLA Dan Ashton said it wasn’t a last minute change, but that the government has been working on a solution for some time.
“There has been a problem that has been identified,” said Ashton, adding that he and other MLAs have expressed their opinions to the premier how important these rural/sub-rural schools are to communities.
Now, he said, it is up to the school districts overseeing the nine schools slated for closure to come together.
“The province has stepped forward and I hope the school board will call an emergency meeting and discuss this and come out with a positive resolution that will keep this school open,” said Ashton.
Van Alphen said they are waiting for the official notification and directions for how to apply for the funding, expressing her frustration at the timing of the announcement.
“It would definitely be an emergency meeting, but we will make it an open meeting. The reason for that is I think trustees need to be able to say how they feel about being put through this over the last 10 months,” said Van Alphen.
“It is the way that it has been handled and that they allowed us to go through everything we have gone through. We would never have embarked on this if we knew this is coming down the pike.”
Van Alphen said she has no reason to think the Okanagan Skaha School District wouldn’t take advantage of the new funding to keep Trout Creek open. With the announcement so fresh, she didn’t know when the trustees would gather to make a decision, but said it could be late Friday or Monday.
The amount of funding districts will be eligible for is to be equal to their expected savings from closing the school. Districts would be able to apply annually for Rural Education Enhancement Funding if the school meets a set of criteria: in a rural community or sub-community outside Greater Victoria, the Lower Mainland, and Kelowna areas with a population less than 15,000; closure would eliminate specific grades within the community; funding is used to keep the school open; closures due to facility condition or extreme enrolment decline are not included.
“If they have been up to now making plans how to close them, SD67 now has the opportunity to make plans to reopen Trout Creek and keep it open,” said Ashton. “The school board has been faced with some tough decisions with declining enrollment but the province has come through to adjust that because of the importance of rural schools.”
That importance goes beyond just educating students, according to Premier Clark.
“Closing the only high school or elementary school in a rural community has a large impact on that local economy,” Premier Clark said. “With Canada’s strongest economy it’s important that we make sure the benefits are shared by rural communities throughout our province to ensure they have the infrastructure they need to grow, attract talent, and provide critical services like health care. Our rural education strategy will help us accomplish this.”
Clark also tasked newly appointed parliamentary secretary for rural education Linda Larson and parliamentary secretary for rural development Donna Barnett to conduct a full study of rural education funding in the province to seek a long-term solution.
There are nine schools listed where closure plans may be affected by the new funding. Along with Trout Creek, Osoyoos Secondary is on the list, though West Bench Elementary didn’t meet the rural requirements.
“I have tried, but it was the rural and sub-rural schools the province has turned its attention to. Unfortunately, I was not successful in garnering those funds for West Bench,” said Ashton.