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Feb 16,2007 Now News


By Simone Blais - Staff Reporter

Two school trustees are calling for an emergency board meeting to consider ending the school closure process in light of the provincial government's throne speech Tuesday.

Trustees Keith Watkins and John Keryluk issued a joint press release Thursday concluding that, after talking with parents and the community, the decision in November to look into closing schools was "mostly about under-funding for seismic upgrades, not educational and enrolment issues."

Instead, the pair is calling on School District 43 to "engage in meaningful discussion with the individual municipalities affected," about how to best use low-enrolment schools - since refusing to talk to city councillors "is fundamentally wrong and we strongly object."

The dialogue between the school district and municipalities is needed, they argue, because of one line included in the provincial government's speech from the throne on Tuesday.

During the speech, "A pledge to use under-utilized school spaces as public spaces to deliver on public priorities," was listed among the B.C. government's legislative priorities for the year.

According to Watkins and Keryluk, "A clear understanding of this new direction is required for any final decisions are made by the school board about school closures."

The two trustees believe the provincial pledge bodes well for elementary schools with lower enrolment - such as the eight on School District 43's potential closure list - as it was the Ministry of Education that excluded uses by day cares or other community groups as being included in how school utilization is calculated.

"If the provincial government is able to recognize the need to take a responsible look at how we are using under-utilized schools, how can we as elected leaders not heed this message and proceed carefully before we close schools," the release stated, adding that the board has to move away from a "myopic perspective of just education, towards an integrated view that considers health and community sustainability perspectives."

While Keryluk could not be reached by The NOW deadline, Watkins said Thursday that circumstances have changed and trustees need to review their initial decision.

"It isn't that complicated. If the throne speech was given one month earlier, and trustees had that in front of them when they voted on Nov. 28, would the vote have been different?" he said.

"I would have to believe it would be different because it clearly was statements about doing things differently.

"Well, before we shut a school down and then find out they've changed the parameters and we could have kept the school open, we need to figure that out."

What that announcement alludes to, Watkins said, is the problem school officials have been grappling with since day one, as "the issue is about formulas.

"If the government recognizes day cares in the school as part of the usage formula - which they could do because they constantly change formulas - then that's the solution," he said. "Let the government give us credit for when we do have cadets and day care providers in the school already.

"Then the allowances by the school wouldn't have to be propped up by the district, because what you would have is those extra dollars coming into the school to help with staffing and the extra cost of running a small school."

Watkins believes that the school district could emulate projects like that of the Port Moody Legion, which faced an uncertain future with respect to its building until a seniors' housing project was added and made the location viable again.

If the school district were to consult with the municipalities, he argues, then programs like Port Moody's French immersion day care - currently run out of the Social Recreation Centre - could be incorporated in schools to fill the building and bring in more revenue.

The side benefit to such a shift in provincial and district policies, he said, would be allowing local educators to continue offering the small-school environments the community has come to prefer.

"Some of these schools on this list were sitting at 70 or 80 kids in them 10, 20 years ago," he said.

"If the educational argument is that we're closing schools for services, then that was the argument before. We kept them alive, I believe, because of the philosophy of our neighbourhood schools.

"If the government said they want to change that (philosophy), then fine. Let them take that approach."

Lincoln Elementary parent and Port Coquitlam Coun. Greg Moore said the call to cease the process was "great."

"We welcome the opportunity as parents to work with the school board to better utilize these schools that are the centre of our community," he said.

"Part of the solutions that Lincoln parents presented was the better utilization of the schools, with day care and the like."

Board chair Melissa Hyndes said the process won't be stopped, and the special public board meeting would still be held Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

"I do not feel the same way that those trustees do. We are in the process, and I want the process to follow through," she said.

"The throne speech is what it is, and I will be waiting to see what kind of implementation comes down.

"But we are towards the end of our school closure process and I would like to see it followed through."

Watkins, however, said he and Keryluk took the unusual steps through the press release to start a discussion.

"My experience in politics so far is that it does take people standing up, and you take your lumps," he said. "But at the end of the day, if it's best for your citizens, then you've done your job. My job description is to enhance the opportunities for my citizens, and those citizens are the children. That's one thing we tend to forget.

"This (throne speech) benefits us if we look at it the right way.

"Opportunities come up a lot of times, it's if you take the time to look for that opportunity."

published on 02/16/2007

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