By ROY WOOD
Nearly 1,000 people jammed the Osoyoos Secondary School gym Tuesday evening to lecture, scold, advise, plead with and otherwise try to convince school trustees and bureaucrats not to close one of the town’s two schools.
More than 40 parents, politicians, students and others waited their turns at two microphones to express their views and offer ideas at the first of three public consultation meetings the school district is conducting in Osoyoos.
At issue are two options put to the school board by senior staff in January to deal with the looming budget crisis resulting from declining enrollments, reduced provincial funding and excess classroom capacity.
The only two proposals approved by the board to move forward were:
- Close Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS) and transfer students to South Okanagan Secondary School (SOSS) in Oliver.
- Close Osoyoos Elementary, transfer students to OSS, making it a kindergarten-to-grade-8 school, and transfer grades 10-12 to SOS.
The public input segment of the Tuesday’s three-hour-long meeting began following a 40-minute slide presentation by district Superintendent Bev Young and secretary-treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet.
The gymnasium walls were festooned with hand-painted posters and banners with the Save Our Schools message.
The crowd remained loud and enthusiastic, interrupting nearly every anti-shuttering speaker with cheers, applause and an occasional standing ovation.
On a few occasions epithets shouts of derision were hurled at the senior administration in attendance. But, for the most part, it complied with the direction from the chair to remain respectful.
First to the microphone was Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff, who said closing either school would have “a profoundly adverse effect on the town.”
The mayor, who taught at the elementary school for more than 30 years, lamented the short notice the town received from the school district and asked rhetorically why only Osoyoos is being targeted in the budget-cutting process.
The slide presentation claimed each of the proposals would lead to an annual savings of just under $400,000.
Brenda Dorosz, who recently created the local Save Our Schools committee, told the meeting her group has collected more than 3,300 signatures on a petition demanding that neither of the Osoyoos schools be closed.
She said a survey by her group found a consensus amoung local businesses that a school closing would be harmful.
As to moving students to the Oliver school, Ms. Dorosz said there is an animosity at SOSS toward Osoyoos students, which “will lead to increased violence and bullying.”
“Why is there no Osoyoos Scenario Page in your presentation,” she asked trustees. “Maybe it’s because there are no School Board staff living in Osoyoos. You have no vested interest in our community.
“Do you really even care about us?”
On the financial side, Ms. Dorosz said her group has identified all manner of potential savings, including: converting to a four-day school week saving $500,000 a year; reducing school board office staff saving $300,000; and making principals responsible for two schools each would garnering about $300,000.
She concluded by warning the board the proposal is “not going to just close our school; it’s going to close our town.”
Former Osoyoos mayor Stu Wells described the slide show as “very slick” and “clearly leading to this recommendation.”
“But I never once heard the word ‘student,’” thundered Mr. Wells to raucous applause.
Mr. Wells told the meeting that he recently spoke with four Osoyoos residents who don’t have students in the system but who said they would be prepared to pay higher local taxes to keep the schools open.
Mr. Wells challenged the authority of the board to make a closure decision and suggested Education Minister Mike Bernier and Premier Christie Clark should come to Osoyoos and defend the proposal.
David Smith, who moved to Osoyoos five years ago, tried to keep the focus on the provincial government, asking, “Where is (MLA Linda) Larson? … I haven’t seen her in town since the last election.”
“We need to take the pressure off the board … we have to look to Victoria,” Smith said.
Communications consultant and Osoyoos Daily News owner Andrew Stuckey agreed, urging the board to “stand firm against the province and the ministry.”
He said that if the board were to stand up to the ministry, “other boards in the province will stand with you.”
High-profile Osoyoos dentist and community volunteer Jason Bartsch urged the board to seek solutions to the budget issues other than closing schools and to give the community time to help find a solution.
Closing a school will have a long-term, detrimental impact on efforts to attract young families to the area and should be used only as an “ultimate and final last resort.”
Brian Rothwell, a retired school administrator who lives in Osoyoos, urged the board to explore ways to attract students from around the province to the high school’s golf and hockey academy programs and to advertise internationally to attract foreign students to boost enrollment.
Over the course of the evening, several students representing various school groups urged the board not to force students to go to SOSS and to give up what they have built at OSS.
At one point, Osoyoos trustee and board chair Marieze Tarr was moved to defend her failure to vote against the recommendation at the January meeting. She sited the Roberts Rules of Order tradition in which the chair votes only to break ties.
She added, however, “I know how this would affect my community. Obviously I wouldn’t have voted in favour.”
According to the slide presentation at the beginning of the evening, the advantages to closing OSS include a broader range of curricular and extra-curricular options for students; greater teacher expertise in some areas; and eliminating the need to spend nearly $5 million on “facilities upgrades.”
Disadvantages to option 1 included “community impact” of closing the only high school in town and the cost of extra buses.
The only advantages to closing the elementary school related to the Grade 10 to 12 students moving to SOSS.
- $600,000 in renovations needed at OSS;
- the need to move playground equipment;
- the extra supervision;
- and the need for Grade 10 to 12 students to integrate into a new school.
As for capacity, SOSS was rebuilt following a 2011 fire and will hold 700 students. And, according to district facilities director Deb Sansome, there is room for two more classrooms in the basement, which brings the total to 750. There are currently 445 students at SOSS and 230 at OSS, for a total of 675.
The slide show presented a bleak picture of declining enrollments, excess classroom capacity, reduced provincial funding and increasing budget shortfalls.
District-wide enrollment was 2,809 in 2005. This school year there are 2,158 students and in two years there will be 2,080. By 2024 enrollment is projected at 1,910.
The district has no control over the revenue side of the budget. The provincial Ministry of Education determines the funding level based on the number of students in the district. As the number of students declines, so does the funding.
For the current school year, the district’s operating deficit was roughly $600,000. But, the district is not allowed to operate at a deficit and was able to cover the shortfall out of an accumulated surplus fund created over years of operating surpluses.
The accumulated surplus is being depleted and will contain just $813,000 at the beginning of the next budget year. The 2016/17 operating deficit is projected to be $1.1 million and for 2017/18 it is estimated at $1.4 million.
If the board decided to use up the entire accumulated surplus in the 2016/17 year, it would still face an operating deficit of about $300,000.
Implementing one of the Osoyoos closure recommendations would cover the shortfall, but would leave a projected deficit of more than $1 million in the 2017/18 budget year.
The school board and senior administration will return to Osoyoos on March 8 to report on the public input so far and to offer another opportunity to address the board.
The board will decide what to do regarding the recommendations at its April 6 meeting.