“This is the fun part of my job,” chuckled Education Minister Mike Bernier as he toured through a bustling Glenmerry grade school on Wednesday.
“Our province is so large and every area is unique in their own way,” he said . “So it’s good for me to get out and really see what’s happening in this area, because one of the things I talk about is that it’s hard to make decisions in Victoria that affect everyone around the province,” Bernier added. “Without actually getting around the province and seeing how the decisions we make affect people.”
Bernier made two stops in Trail during a whirlwind tour of school districts across the province this week.
First he dropped into Glenmerry Elementary classrooms and said hello to kindergartners and a Grade 4/5 science class, before heading outside to an adjacent portable to listen in on a math class.
After lunch, Bernier was slated for a grounding session with Kootenay Columbia Learning Centre students before heading into a meeting with School District 20 trustees and staff.
Though his schedule through SD20 was only hours, Bernier took note that what he did see in Trail is part of a trend that’s happening in many B.C. school districts.
“What’s really great to see is that we are starting to see enrollment growth in a lot of different parts of the province,” Bernier told the Trail Times. “Which is one of the challenges within the education system.”
While some places are seeing growth, others are continuing to see a decline in student bodies, he continued.
“When you look at the opportunities in Trail, it’s a beautiful place and people want to be here, and that’s one of the reasons I want to sit down and talk with the school district,” Bernier explained. “They are going to be talking to me about some of the different pressures they are facing because of growth.”
He acknowledged the tough decisions SD20 trustees have been forced to make over the past six years with ever growing deficits, including the $670,000 shortfall they face this year.
“They have also done a lot of work in past years where they had to close schools when enrollment was declining,” Bernier said. “But that has really made them focus. When you look at a school like this today, where we are at capacity, it really allows for programs and opportunities for students that sometimes can’t be offered when you have a school that’s half full.”
When the student body grows and schools like Glenmerry run at full capacity, Bernier says educational programs can actually be enhanced.
“(Such as) a science lab that you might not be able to have in smaller schools,” he said. “From an operational and from a programming standpoint when a school is full, most studies show you get better opportunities for students.”
With such a large deficit this year, SD20 is forced to axe something, and that’s most likely going to be the free bus service.
Trustees are proposing a fee for students to ride the bus to balance the budget.
And Bernier says those decisions are best left to the local school board, not the province.
“When you look at busing, there is no standard,” he said. “Some districts offer it, some don’t, some privatize or charge for the service – it’s different in every school district based on decisions made at the board level, where they feel it’s the best opportunity to spend money to help people in the area,” Bernier added. “That’s why I’ve always said it’s better those decisions are made locally than in Victoria because you can’t make a decision that’s going to be great for everybody, you need to have that local autonomy.”
The father of five is from Dawson Creek, and says he’s knows first hand the challenges facing rural students and their families.
“It’s the decision that people make some time as well, and it’s one of the ones I always encourage people to talk with the school district about, because the school district has flexibility sometimes,” he said. “And I am always meeting with the districts and looking for opportunities to be able to assist them as well.”