By ROY WOOD

Osoyoos residents gathered again Tuesday at a public information meeting urging members of the Okanagan Similkameen School Board to abandon a proposal to shutter one of the town’s two schools.

At the very least, several asked, the board should hold off any action for a year to allow alternative solutions to be explored around budget and declining enrollment issues.

Unlike the February 9 meeting, at which members of the public queued up for the microphone and spoke at length, speakers on Tuesday were kept to a strict three-minute limit after being pre-entered on a speakers’ list.

Keeping an eye on the clock and cutting off over-time speakers was Brian Pepper, a moderator hired by the board for the event. He was reluctant to identify himself fully, but it turns out he is a former superintendent in the Prince George school district who retired at the end of last year.

Under discussion on Tuesday were two options devised by district staff and put before the board in January. They are intended to help resolve a looming budget crisis resulting from declining enrollments, reduced provincial funding and excess classroom capacity.

The two proposals brought forward were:

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

Board chair Marieze Tarr began on Tuesday by emphasizing the difficulty of the choices the board must make. But, “We are trusted to keep the students at the heart of every decision,” she said.

Superintendent of schools Bev Young outlined some advantages in having a larger student body at a secondary school, including a broader variety of available courses and “a broadening of peer groups for social development.”

Secretary treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet told the crowd that since 2009 the district has cut annual spending by nearly $1.5 million through a variety of measures from changed staffing formulas and sharing of senior staff with another district to reduced photocopying and printing costs.

During the current budget cycle, she said, staff has identified $687,000 in potential savings from increasing student/teacher ratios in secondary schools, reduced library and clerical support, more teaching time by principals and vice-principals and various other means.

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff took to the microphone to tell the board that she and the town council have been receiving many ideas from constituents. She shared some of them with the board:

  • Perhaps the town could manage maintenance of the school grounds;
  • Maybe public libraries could work with school libraries to achieve savings;
  • Some space at OSS could be used by Okanagan College; and
  • The town would be willing to look at some manner of tax increase to help keep the schools open.

McKortoff closed by saying: “Our ask is that you place a moratorium on the closure” until a district-wide committee can be struck to explore possible solutions.

NDP education critic Rob Fleming, after spending the day with school closure opponents, told the meeting the essential problem facing the school districts is that the provincial government has been cutting the amount of money it spends on education.

B.C. used to lead the country in education spending, he said, but under the Liberal government has slipped to ninth place among the provinces, spending $1,000 per student less than the national average.

Fleming urged Osoyoos residents and the board to “hang in there” because there is a provincial election next May.

Well-known Osoyoos dentist Jason Bartsch echoed Fleming’s criticism of the province, which he said puts the onus on the school board to make difficult decisions like closing schools, but denies them the power to raise money through taxes.

Bartsch wasn’t on the official speakers’ list and Pepper initially wouldn’t let him address the board. But he relented when the crowd became a bit unruly and demanded Bartsch be heard.

He echoed McKortoff’s plea for a district-wide committee to look at funding and enrollment options. But he also pointed out that, if OSS were to close, “There is an appetite for a viable, independent school” in Osoyoos.

Brenda Dorosz, who heads the Save Our Schools advocacy group, told the board that she invited local MLA Linda Larson, Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Mike Bernier to the meeting but they all declined.

Dorosz said the petition being circulated by her group has collected 3,851 signatures.

Among the other speakers:

  • Osoyoos town councillor Carol Youngberg, who has spent 35 years as a realtor in town, said, “I have been getting reports of collapsed deals” because of reports of the possible closures
  • Former Osoyoos mayor Stu Wells urged the board to consider the idea of amalgamating the two elementary schools in Oliver and turning SOSS into a Grade-6-12 school.
  • Local business operator Chad Jensen said his company has already had customers cancelling jobs and scaling back plans because of fears the town will lose its high school
  • Chiropractor Martha Collins said, “We are in the midst of a baby boom” and closing schools would be short sighted. She said the province has given the district “faulty data” about declining enrollments.

Attendance at Tuesday’s meeting was down slightly, as about 750 people filled the Sonora Centre gymnasium compared to the nearly 1,000 at the high school last month.

The next event is a board meeting April 6 in Osoyoos where trustees will make a decision on what to do with the recommendations.

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