Local school board doesn’t want provincial help, minister says

Local school boards do not want provincial help — from either side of the House — in determining what’s best for local students and where they go to school, Education Minister Mike Bernier told the B.C. Legislature this morning.

That includes the Okanagan Similkameen school board, he indicated.

“I was invited up by the (SD53) school board and I was very pleasured to meet with the local school board in that area,” said Mr. Bernier during Question Period.

“One thing the local school board did say to me … was that these decisions are made at the local level. The school board actually said that they don’t need political interference by members opposite coming up trying to persuade people opposite.”

Mr. Bernier, who met with the school board in December 2015, a month before the school closing was raised publicly, was responding to a series of questions about education cuts and school closings occurring or under consideration across the province.

The first was from Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming, who came to Osoyoos March 8 and participated in a consultation meeting held that evening.

“I met with parents, trustees, civic leaders and the business community, all united in trying to work together to save their schools,” Mr. Fleming told the Legislature.

“The loss of either school in this town would dismantle their K-to-12 education system and devastate the ability to attract and retain skilled workers, businesses and supports for families.

“People in Osoyoos have now requested to meet with the Premier. They have made requests to meet with the minister. They have made requests to meet with their local MLA. None of those have been satisfied.”

Mr. Fleming added the Liberal government appears to be the only group of people who do not see the role the province is playing in school closings.

“The problem here is the government isn’t listening,” said Mr. Fleming. “The school district itself, the elected trustees, they know, as do the people of British Columbia, that the provincial budget decides what the funding level is for education in Osoyoos and every community in British Columbia.

“Districts have already made major administrative spending cuts over the last decade. B.C. has the leanest school administration in Canada and, in fact, in North America. And yet the Premier says there’s low-hanging fruit to cut.”

Responding to additional questions, Mr. Bernier suggested the Opposition NDP want to take over local education planning.

“The members opposite are still on the same mantra of thinking they can make a better decision than the locally elected school boards, who are duly elected in the community to make those decisions,” he said.

The potential closing of a school in Osoyoos and the transportation of secondary students to Oliver for classes has become a provincial issue. The school board first raised it publicly in January to deal with what it believes will be a looming budget crisis resulting from declining enrollments, reduced provincial funding and excess classroom capacity.

The two proposals approved by the board to move forward were:

  1. Close Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS) and transfer students to South Okanagan Secondary School (SOSS) in Oliver.
  2. Close Osoyoos Elementary, transfer students to OSS, making it a kindergarten-to-grade-8 school, and transfer grades 10-12 to SOS.

Mr. Bernier’s comment about political interference contrasts remarks made by SD53 board chair Marieze Tarr in late February as she discussed a process change that would require those wishing to speak at the consultation meeting to submit their questions ahead of time.

“We would be happy for him to speak,” Ms. Tarr said February 26 of Mr. Fleming. “If he could in any way secure more funding for school districts, that is what we want. We need more provincial funding, especially for rural districts.”

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