By ROY WOOD
In the end, Osoyoos school trustees were simply outnumbered. They couldn’t stop what many residents saw as the inevitable decision to close the town’s high school.
At a tense board meeting in the Osoyoos Secondary School theatre, 260 or so members of the Osoyoos community watched Wednesday as the Okanagan-Similkameen School Board voted four-to-three to close the secondary school at the end of the school year.
Grade 8-12 students would be transferred to Southern Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver.
At least that is the District’s plan; Osoyoos parents appeared to have other ideas.
Before shouts of “Shame on you!” had stopped echoing, plans for an independent school in the same building were taking on a sense of urgency and an air of optimism.
Osoyoos trustees Marieze Tarr, the board chair, and June Harrington were joined by Keremeos trustee Myrna Coates in voting against the motion.
Oliver trustees Rob Zandee and Rachel Allenbrand along with Sam Hancheroff of Okanagan Falls and Debbie Martens of Keremeos voted in favour.
Ironically, Allenbrand was elected to the board in 2013 following a successful battle a couple of years earlier defending Tuc-el-Nuit Elementary against a closure threat.
Before the closure motion, Coates introduced her own motion to put off a decision on closing the school for a year. It was defeated 5-2 despite Harrington’s emotional plea: “I implore my fellow trustees to wait a year.”
Trustees gave the motion the first two of three readings but the decision appears to be made.
“There has to be one more reading,” said Mrs. Tarr. “Third reading will just happen at the next board meeting and it will be adopted.”
Following the vote, angry and disappointed members of the audience verbally assailed the board with shouts of: “Shame,” “We love you June. Resign,” and “Independent school, here we come.”
Osoyoos town Councillor Mike Campol called the whole thing “the most disingenuous process I’ve witnessed in my life.”
Brenda Dorosz, who has spearheaded the Osoyoos Save Our Schools group, said in an interview immediately afterward, “We’re going to have a school for our kids in September and our kids are gong to stay in this school.”
She was referring to plans for an independent school in the same building.
“The application (form) is on my desk. We’ve talked to the provincial government (about taking) over this building and I’m looking into private-sector and public-sector funding.”
Prominent Osoyoos dentist Jason Bartsch has been involved in the independent school initiative. He said in an interview he is optimistic. “I feel in my heart of hearts that this is something that could actually end up being a plus for the town if it’s done properly,” he said.
“I honestly think the dollars and cents part of it is going to be the easiest. … We’ve got a very motivated community and I don’t think it’s going to be hard to put together the resources to pull it off.
“I think with a sound business plan and the right people in place, we’re going to find the other pieces will fall into place pretty quickly.”
Other reaction to Wednesday’s decision to shutter the high school included:
Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff — “After 35 years, losing K-12 is a definite blow. … We’ll also be quite proactive in dealing with the Minister of Education. … That being said, we will stay positive and look at ways we can deal with this. We won’t let this get us down.”
Marieze Tarr – “This of course is a very sad day for me because this affects my community, where I live.”
Mike Campol — “What pisses me off to no end is that four trustees that don’t represent us, and that we didn’t vote in, just closed our school to cover their own asses and their own communities.”
The process that ended Wednesday began in January with a “facilities report,” which outlined the financial situation of the district and the issues that have risen as a result of declining enrollments.
It showed the budget deficit for the current school year at $530,000, rising to $1.1 million in 2016/17 and $1.4 million in 2017/18.
The recently announced per-student funding from the province — the source of virtually all of the district’s funds – offered no relief from the budget squeeze. The funding level has been falling for several years. District-wide enrolment was 2,292 students in 2011. It is 2,144 this year and is expected to it will drop to 1,910 in 2024.
Several school-closure options were considered by the administration but rejected for a variety of reasons:
- Closing Okanagan Falls Elementary and moving students to Oliver — rejected because it is the only school in the community and closing it would result in loss of a $160,000 per year grant;
- Closing Cawston Primary and consolidating with Similkameen Elementary/Secondary — proposed but rejected because of the loss of a $500,000 in grants and upgrading the high school would cost $1.6 million;
- Closing Tuc-el-Nuit Elementary and moving students to Oliver Elementary (OES) — rejected because of the possibility of increased numbers resulting from staffing of the new provincial jail and because of accessibility issues at OES.
The administration recommended that the board move forward with only two options: closing the high school; or closing the elementary school and re-purposing the high school as kindergarten to Grade-9.
Once the decision was made Wednesday to close the high school, the second option became moot.