Fireworks are set to fly as the debate and deliberation on school closures in the region hits close to home in Rossland Tuesday night.
The knives will be sharpened when the board of trustees ascends into the mountain kingdom’s Rossland Secondary School gymnasium at 6:30 p.m. for a public forum on the facilities review underway in School District 20 (Kootenay Columbia).
The board plays host to what could be an inhospitable public to discuss potential closures or reconfigurations in the city of Rossland, as well as in Castlegar on Wednesday.
But with over 300 letters coming in during the month-long call for public input—and well over 95 per cent of the letters from Rosslanders—if the mood of the meeting reflects the public response so far trustees will have targets pinned to their backs for the evening.
“I must question the experience and training of those making these decisions, with a seemingly incomplete evaluation, that so significantly affects an entire community,” wrote one woman in a letter posted to SD20’s public website.
“Placing all the teenaged population in one high school (J.L. Crowe) denies our young adults these types of opportunities to grow and develop and would be a serious disservice to our communities as a whole,” wrote another.
Most people in Rossland agreed the city needed both schools, but could not support their sentiment with hard facts.
“It is unfair for the folks in Rossland not to have a school,” one man wrote. “This will devastate the town.”
Many writers cited the reason they moved to Rossland was for the quality of life the small city afforded them. And part of that quality was having kindergarten to Grade 12 education available to their children.
But if the situation changed, and grades nine to 12 were moved to Trail’s J.L. Crowe high school, many threatened to move or to home school their children.
“If schooling is not made available our family will be joining the many others who would choose to leave due to these circumstances,” one man wrote.
“I know of several people who are either open to moving or actively looking to move due to the ongoing school issue,” another man added.
There will be a facilitator in place at the meeting, said SD20 board chair Darrell Ganzert, perhaps to quell the emotion that is likely to erupt. Any dramatic change is difficult to accept at times, he said, and this could be one of those times.
“I think reasonable, sensible people will understand why we have to make these tough decisions, but there will always be people who will not accept, there is no question about that, and with difficult decisions there is always some of that,” he said. “We think most people will understand a logical argument and we’ll point out what we’ve done over the last few years to balance our budget.”
The financial state of the district, a look back into the history of how the district has gotten to where it is, and how the board is legally required to balance budgets will be presented at the meeting.
The meeting is structured but there will be an opportunity, albeit limited, at the end of the meeting for people to ask questions.
“What we’re there for as trustees is to get an idea of what the citizens of that community feel, to get an impression of them,” Ganzert said. “And that’s really our obligation as a board.”
But the board has bungled its obligation to keep the public informed of where the real problem is, said Kootenay Columbia Teachers Union president Andy Davidoff. With a $1.75 million budget deficit facing the district over the next three years, the problem, and its subsequent answer, is not closing schools, he said.
Closing two schools, including Rossland’s secondary school, would only save the district $625,000, according to SD20 administration’s own calculations, said Davidoff.
“Where are the rest of the cuts coming from?” he asked. “They are focusing on the school closures, but what really needs to be focused on and the public needs to be aware of is the budget crisis and the whole picture and the board’s options to address it. And that is not being done.”
The public deserves to know the whole state of the crisis and all of the options the board is considering, not just closures, Davidoff added.
The union asked the board to prepare a parallel set of documents, delineating what it would consider cutting—what programs, what staff, what the student-teacher ratio would be—to make up for the remaining deficit.
Last year the board cut 14 people from its region-wide staff to make up for a $1.5 million budget shortfall.
A thematic summary of the submissions will also be highlighted at the public forum.
After the public forums the board will review information and feedback received. Should the board decide to close schools, they are required to pass three readings of a bylaw in open meetings.
The board voted in favour of splitting second reading into two meetings and holding debate on the bylaws in respective communities in order to give parents a first hand look at the rationale behind the decisions.
First reading of what could potentially be two bylaws related to reconfiguration and closures of Twin Rivers and one school in Rossland will take place Feb. 4. Second reading (if necessary) will then take place Tuesday, Feb. 12 in Rossland and Wednesday, Feb. 13 in Castlegar.
The final date for third reading still holds on Monday, Feb. 25.