Six months after finding grant funding to keep schools like Osoyoos Secondary School open even as they were in the process of being closed, the provincial Minister of Education now says he’s committed to ensuring they remain open.
Education Minister Mike Bernier visited Osoyoos Secondary today, meeting students, teachers and staff, before settling in for an hour-long chat with Okanagan Similkameen School District trustees.
“I was here a year ago, through this area, but today was with a different lens,” the minister said after the visit.
“It was to talk to the students, talk to the teachers and ask ‘what does this school mean to you’ and (determine) was it important for government to step up and frankly intervene with a process to offer funds to keep this school open.”
His conclusion? Rural Education Enhancement funding will continue until a “different funding mechanism” becomes available.
“That’s part of the discussion we had today with the school board,” he said. “They asked the question: is this ongoing? The commitment was ‘yes, this education funding for rural schools for schools like this one in Osoyoos is ongoing funding.’
“In the meantime, (MLA) Linda (Larson) is also looking at a new process,” the minister added. “The expectation will be that some good recommendations will come out of that process and through that there might be a different funding mechanism that won’t require possibly this extra funding because it will be built into the new envelope.”
Mr. Bernier called the Osoyoos school closing process “a very emotional time” and an “amazingly stressful situation” but added the process did have its benefits — including building an awareness that schools in small B.C. communities provide “unique circumstances” that government needs to consider in its funding formula.
“If you only have one school in a town or if you have a small rural community — a small community that has that school — what do you do to really look at the uniqueness that the School Act didn’t really allow for?” the minister explained.
“How do we do things differently within the Ministry, within government, to help situations like Osoyoos so we don’t go through this again.”
One solution might be to link the rural communities to the rest of the province and beyond and bring distant education resources to the classroom.
“The first issue — especially for rural B.C. — is to make sure that all of our rural schools have high-speed internet. We’re starting to see some huge success utilizing that technology,” he said.
“The opportunities are endless with technology and we’re going to enhance that, for sure.”
The minister made no apology for not engaging in the school closing process last spring.
“It would have been very inappropriate for me to show up — I think for any elected official to show up — during that school closure process because the school district is the one that has the full authority, the full autonomy, to make the decision,” he explained.
“For any elected official, myself included, to show up during that can muddy the waters and distract from the work the school district is trying to do.”
The minister was accompanied by MLA Larson, who is charged with reviewing rural education and providing a portrait to the minister.
“I’m actually absolutely amazed at the incredible school boards, teachers and programs there are across the province that we don’t seem to hear too much about,” she said. “They’re all raising similar issues as the calls come in and as the emails come in.
“When we’re done, we’ll come out with certainly a lot of information for the minister to look at and to see whether there is a common path that we can go down.”
As to his visit to Osoyoos Secondary, Mr. Bernier spoke about the “passion and excitement in the students.”
“I had lots of kids come up and talk to me just to say, ‘I’m so excited the school is still open. I love my friends. I love this community.’
“They were thankful for the government’s decision to be able to help the school district.”