The upcoming Community Consultation session in Lake Cowichan will be one that determines the future of education in this community.
Cowichan Valley School District #79 has organized a meeting on Dec. 8 at Lake Cowichan Secondary School to discuss the options being considered for the schools in our area in an era of declining enrolment and increased costs.
Former school board trustee Duncan Brown and retired teacher and former school board trustee Diana Gunderson, both of Lake Cowichan, spoke to the Gazette recently about their concerns for the future of public education in the Lake Cowichan district.
“They are calling this a consultation process, and none of the questions that are going to be asked have come from the community,” remarked Brown. ”Everything that is going to be brought there has been brought there by them. So really what they’re looking for is ratification of the decisions that they’ve already made. They’re looking for consent from the community — not even consent — they’re looking for the appearance of consent by holding this consultation.”
Brown’s and Gunderson’s concern comes from their past experience of attending previous meetings of a similar kind, one of which resulted in the closure of Stanley Gordon School. They fear that the end result of this meeting will be the closure of the remaining public schools in the Lake Cowichan district.
Since taking on his position in the District, Mike McKay, the Official Trustee, has changed or suspended many of the policies that have directed School Board procedures and decisions. One most notable change is that the Official Trustee can suspend any policy as he feels necessary, and without binding him to public input. This means that he can make decisions as he feels necessary without hearing from the parents and communities involved.
“There will end up being a new high school in Duncan,” continued Brown, “and the argument will be we’ll move our high school students to that school, and we’ll bus our kids to Duncan. And we’ll have gone from seven schools to one.”
The president of the Lake Cowichan Teachers Association, Chris Rolls, added her concern about the outcome of the meeting to those of Brown and Gunderson, emphasizing the need for public support.
“Getting the community out to the Community Consultation Meeting is essential,” Rolls told the Gazette. “We have faced cuts and threats of closure of our Lake schools before, but never to this extent, and never without being able to make appeals to a School Board that had some knowledge of our communities and that was willing to hear what the communities had to say.”
All three agreed that the replacement for the fired board trustees has landed the district with a government official who has no accountability or mandate for the community and who is making decisions about whether schools stay open or closed.
“The Official Trustee has talked about cuts to the “status quo” since his first Board Meeting in July,” Rolls said. “He has not addressed the fact that the district is underfunded, nor has he addressed that students are already not getting all of the supports that they require.
“This is NOT about more for teachers,” she insisted. “This is about the kids getting the services they need in their own communities. It is about keeping our schools and keeping our kids in our schools.”
The scheduled meeting on Dec. 8 will be held by the Official Trustee and Senior Administrators. According to Rolls, they have explained that they will first talk to the community about the financial difficulties and the fact that cuts must be made. Then they will have the community, who will be sitting around tables, discuss how the district can make cuts and meet the financial difficulties.
Then there will be a question and answer period from those present. The staff has also explained that they may ask a series of questions and take the information to combine with other community meetings and that each Community Consultation meeting will build from the rest. Lake Cowichan’s meeting is the first of four two hour sessions planned for the entire school district.
Following the Dec. 8 meeting in Lake Cowichan, other meetings are scheduled in Chemainus (also Dec. 8), George Bonner Middle School in Mill Bay (Jan. 12), and Quamichan Middle School, also Jan. 12, 2013.
“The communities should have the opportunity to say whether they support what is happening or not,” Brown said. “What it boils down to is, you’re really making a decision as to what kind of community you’re going to have. What kind of community do we want to build, do we want one that includes schools and kids, or are we going to be a suburb of Duncan?”
Every time the school board make cuts, more and more people migrate to the private system. And as they migrate, Brown says, it underfunds the public system.
“It’s just like a house of cards,” he said. “The resources get pulled, people move without those resources, then more resources get pulled and more people move out. And really it’s sad, but it’s happening.”
Rolls, who has been a teacher in Lake Cowichan for a long time, says she has never been as concerned for the district’s schools as she is now.
“What message do we want the Official Trustee to get from our community,” she said. “Do we wish to tell him that we are open to even more cuts, school closures and reduction of services to our kids? Do we wish to tell him he is free to close our schools, ship our kids to Duncan, and that we are okay with that? Do we still want the new school that we have already said we need or can we put all of our kids, K-12, in one building and sell off the rest?”
Those are Rolls’s, Brown’s and Gunderson’s concerns, as well as what the final decision could mean to the communities.
“If we don’t have schools, it would really change the complexion of what this community is,” stated Brown. “Honeymoon Bay was torn in half over that school’s closure.
“We need to support the community, and the community has got to come out and not settle for the options that are just put forward,” he added. “To actually demand what they want and what they deserve.”
“Come to the meeting at LCSS on Dec 8 at 9:30 a.m.,” insisted Rolls. “Come because you care what happens to our communities around the Lake. Come because you know that our schools are a vital part of our communities and we need our kids to have the services they need in their own towns. Come because the Official Trustee, who will be visiting our community for the first time in this role, needs to know that kids at the Lake matter, that people of the Lake care, and we will not settle for less.”
There were no mixed messages from these three concerning the Lake Cowichan area. If ever there was a need for the community to come out in support of its future, they all agree, it is now.