What many hoped would be an announcement this morning Osoyoos Secondary School would remain open turned out instead to be nothing more than a little extra cash and some strong words for the Okanagan Similkameen School District.
MLA Linda Larson, with Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff at her side, provided information on $118,102 the school district will save this year in reduced provincial charges — an amount the MLA said should be used to save Osoyoos Secondary School.
“Instead of being a loud voice, I have tried to be an effective one,” she told about 100 people gathered on the lawn outside the Town of Osoyoos office.
“What I have been doing during this difficult time is a lot of work behind the scenes with the Minister of Education and the government to find a long-term solution to this closure and other closures that are pending in other smaller communities in B.C.”
That “long-term solution” appears to begin with a province-wide reduction of about $25-million worth of provincial charges — Internet, MSP premiums, etc. — that can instead be directed into frontline services for students.
“This funding significantly reduces the cost pressure facing the school district in the upcoming year,” she said.
“Furthermore, the Minister of Education has confirmed that the Okanagan Similkameen School District does have an operating budget surplus. At the end of the day, cost pressure is the reason our school district is proposing to close this school.”
With the additional money available to it, the board should be able to keep Osoyoos Secondary open, she concluded.
“I am calling on our local school district to listen to the people of Osoyoos, use the additional funding and other tools that I have just outlined to do the right thing: keep the school open.”
The secondary school’s fate, however, is still in the school board’s hands.
“The minister is not going to step in and fire or remove trustees who are doing their best to do their job,” Ms. Larson said in an interview after the announcement, adding that meant providing for a balanced budget.
“They will make budget. They won’t submit a deficit budget. They will not need to submit a deficit budget.”
That language was lost on the school board, which pointedly was not invited to attend the announcement.
“There would have been no point in putting those people through the type of the targeted nastiness — there’s no other way to describe it — that they have received whenever they walk down the street in Osoyoos,” Ms. Larson explained.
“And I wanted to give them a chance to take this offer, digest it, get together as a Board and talk about it, and then meet with Osoyoos and meet with me and the school PAC, etc.”
The announcement, although initially intended as a media briefing, became a community event as word spread overnight.
“This is the most deflating announcement that this town has ever heard,” said resident Martha Collins afterwards.
“We were expecting more from this government to support our community. How are the kids going to get any work done today at school? They’re waiting for an announcement from this meeting. It was pathetic.”
Adrienne Mailey, the secondary school’s PAC co-chair, echoed that sentiment.
“My biggest concern is the emotional roller-coaster this is for our students, our families and this community. This has been up and down, up and down for how many months now?”
That mood appeared to be prevalent among those attending. Ms. Larson entertained questions from community members in a tight scrum but escaped with the help of a local bylaw officer when the questions got a little more difficult.
Mayor Sue McKortoff admitted she was among the many Osoyoos residents who had hoped for more from this morning’s announcement.
“I had my hopes high as well,” she said. “To me, it’s not the best solution that I was hoping for; however, believe me, we will work together with Linda, with the school district, to make this happen.”
She added, however, the funding announcement still leaves a lot of work to be done.
“I’m not sure what the $118,000 is going to do for the school district,” she explained. “Maybe it’s their job to come back and say we need more or we can’t make this work. The ball’s in their court at the moment.
“We will do whatever we can, but I’m not sure even where to go from this point.”
Ms. Larson called for co-operation between the two South Okanagan communities, pointing to a building animosity through the school closing process.
“It has been nasty and unpleasant and I am extremely disappointed at the animosity that has arisen between Oliver and Osoyoos again,” she said.
“The two communities have to work together. They’ve always had to work together. There’s no such thing as a dividing line between the two communities. And when somebody from Oliver comes to Osoyoos to shop and is told to get the hell out of town because nobody wants their business, it’s gone too far.”
Mayor McKortoff said she hopes the message gets back to the school district to keep Osoyoos Secondary open and not use the offered savings on another option.
“I would think that after today’s announcement that (using the savings for another purpose) would probably not be the best thing to do,” she said.
“I don’t think that would be in their best interest. Let’s hope that the school district is listening.”