Education Minister Mike Bernier told the BC Legislature Tuesday a decision to close one of the two schools in Osoyoos “is best made at the local level,” putting the load of such a decision squarely on the shoulders of SD53 trustees.

But although that decision must be a crushing burden, trustees do have some wiggle room.

Here’s why.

Despite an SD53 assertion it will be strapped for cash during the 2016/17 school year, it is largely an expected structural deficit that is at the root of the district’s proposal to close Osoyoos Secondary School and transport students to classes in Oliver.

A structural deficit is defined as “a fundamental imbalance in government receipts and expenditures, as opposed to one based on one-off or short-term factors.”

Simply put, a structural deficit results from an extended period — in the district’s case, several years — of a public organization having insufficient funding to cover its expenses.

It differs from a budget deficit, which is defined as a public body spending more in a single year than it receives in revenue that year.

When we’re talking about buying time to save a school, that distinction is important.

According to the 2015 Facilities Plan delivered to trustees in December, the district’s structural deficit currently sits at $530,000 and is projected to be $1.4 million by the 2017/18 school year if the district “does not take proactive steps to reduce operating expenses.”

The district does not know yet what its operational deficit will be for the 2016/17 school year — or even if it will have an operational deficit.

That’s because the district has yet to receive a statement of projected revenue from the Ministry of Education.

“This figure will be confirmed in the middle of March when the figures are released by the Ministry,” confirmed Board Chair Marieze Tarr earlier this week.

In short, the district has a good idea how much it will receive from the province but it doesn’t know for sure — and won’t know for sure until next month.

From there, the Board expects to host a public budget consultation meeting in April, “where we share our preliminary numbers and ask for input from the public,” she added.

In the meantime, according to the district’s secretary treasurer, the district is basing its 2016/17 financial projection on an internal forecast tool delivered by the province.

So what, you might be asking yourself, is this exercise we’ve undertaken over the last month?

At the root of that answer is the updating of a 2010 Facilities Plan and some strategic planning on the part of the district’s board and administration.

According to the Board Chair, the Board last Fall asked senior staff “to revisit the 2010 Facilities Plan” and present an updated facilities plan with “recommendations based on the unique educational challenges that we are facing in our secondary schools and as a way to deal with our structural deficit.”

The Board determined at a closed-door meeting in December to share the facilities plan with the public in January and move forward with public consultation on closing one of the two Osoyoos schools.

In other words, when the Board came to Osoyoos earlier this month to talk school closing, it was doing more than just discussing a plan to get from Point A to Point B over the next school year. It was sharing a strategic direction.

If school trustees are seriously thinking strategically, they must realize applying a band-aid this year isn’t going to stem the blood flow. The structural deficit will continue to grow and other schools — and eventually the district itself — will fall under the axe.

Over the last couple of years, the SD53 has quietly added its voice to a building expression of dissent demanding the BC government rework the funding model to make public education a priority. It has delivered letters to the provincial ministry, spoke up about the challenges small rural districts face delivering education to students and encouraged the Ministry to provide stable, predictable funding.

All that seems to have gone for naught.

Locally, though, by dropping the school-closing bombshell, trustees accomplished something far more important: they now have the community’s undivided attention.

If trustees recognize that success for what it is, they’ll vote no on their own measure to close an Osoyoos school — at least for a season.

Instead, they’ll enlist the keen and eager aid of other public- and private-sector organizations in the community, they’ll listen to suddenly energized parents and other local residents, and they’ll work to find a strategic solution that turns around the structural deficit and secures quality education for all SD53 students.

In short, they’ll recognize the wiggle room they’ve given themselves for what it is: opportunity.

All trustees need do — at least for a season — is give it a little time to knock.


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