It was a real demonstration of community commitment.
In spite of the graphs, figures and statistics destined to justify School District #79’s underlying message about impending closures and cuts, the 100-plus concerned parents and citizens who attended the Dec. 8 Community Consultation meeting didn’t go away without getting their own message across.
“Keep our kids at the lake,” “we won’t let go of anything in order to keep programs, services or facilities,” and “charge for busing” were some of the replies to questions put out for discussion.
There was an agenda for the public meeting organized by School District 79 and held in the gymnasium of Lake Cowichan Secondary School, but before the Cowichan Valley School District 79 representatives could launch into their presentation, Lake Cowichan resident and businessman Ron Peters stood up and asked to speak on behalf of the community.
“I am very concerned about what’s happening in our community with the schools and with the doctors,” Peters began, “I would like to request that we present a list of questions before we move into the round table phase.”
Bob Harper, the district’s secretary-treasurer was running the meeting and was somewhat taken aback by Peters’ question. He made an attempt to put off hearing the questions until the end of the meeting, but seeing the persistence of Peters and the community, reluctantly but gracefully acquiesced.
Up went the five questions, each one written on a large sheet of paper and taped to the wall of the gymnasium. Harper read each question out over the microphone, and, amidst catcalls and comments from around the room, attempted to deal with them so that the meeting could be resumed.
Here are the five questions the community wanted answers to, along with Harper’s response:
Question 1: How have school closures created educational opportunities and resources for our community?
A: We’ll certainly add that to our list.
Question 2: What are you doing to advocate for more public funding?
A: Districts around the province and BCTFA are continually advocating for additional funding.
Question 3: How much of our small community supplement is being spent on our Community Schools?
A: We’ll certainly add that to our list (of concerns to be looked into).
Question 4: When are we getting the Lake’s new elementary school?
A: That is not our position to (answer unclear).
Question 5: Why aren’t senior administrators carrying their share of the cuts?
A: We’ll certainly add that to our list.
Once he had addressed the commmunity’s questions and concerns, Harper was able to resume the agenda originally set for the meeting. He then used a power-point presentation with graphs, figures and statistics to give some background information on the evolution of education and demographics in British Columbia.
For example, one graph illustrated the growth in numbers of the over-65 age group in comparison to the decline of 4-19 year olds, or the school-aged population, over the past 40 years.
“If you go back to 1971, we had a little less than 10 per cent of our population under the age of 65,” Harper said. “At that same time, the school-aged individuals number up toward 30 per cent. The crossover between the proportion of that population is right about now.”
These figures represent school-aged children right across the province, Harper says, and in looking ahead and assuming the graph continues to evolve in the same way, there will be a complete reversal of the numbers that we have today.
“So that puts some tremendous implications on the allocation of resources by the province,” Harper continued.
Then he presented the public with another graph and the figures that pertain to the Cowichan Valley district.
“We started out in about 1997 at a peak with about 11,000 students in our system,” Harper stated. “Today, we are at 7,725. It looks like the decline is coming to an end and flattening out over the next decade or so.
“One of the key things to keep in mind,” he added, “is that our revenue is applied directly to the number of students that we have.”
After Harper finished his presentation, time was allotted for community members to have roundtable discussions about the facts and figures presented by the school district, and to come up with suggestions or answers to five key questions.
Those questions were:
1. What unique or special issues do you think are facing Lake Cowichan and surrounding communities with respect to delivering education programs and services and facilities?
2. We understand the community’s priorities are to keep the high school viable and to get a new elementary school. How do we accomplish this within the reality of diminishing revenue, declining enrolment and unused space?
3. What matters most to you as the district tries to balance providing programs and services with facilities?
4. What would you let go of in order to keep the most important programs, services or facilities?
5. Do you see other changes we can make throughout the School District to increase revenues and/or reduce expenditures?
While many of the answers from the different groups focused on the subject of keeping the schools at the lake viable, there were many other ideas and thoughts that, when expressed, received applause from those attending.
Each table had a spokes-person from the community who was given the opportunity to voice the conclusions that group had come up with during the round table discussion period.
Following are some of the ideas that the different groups came up with:
Opportunities for remote learning between schools, as long as there is a school-based teacher working with the local learners; the idea of maybe sharing some resources between the schools in the communities, like libraries, etc., and the importance of what it is that meets the community’s needs.
“We feel the school needs to be part of the entire community model, and that way more is needed than what is being provided by our district.”
From another table, the participants identified five key things:
“The first is, keep kids here,” the spokesperson for that table said. “Don’t provide district support for busing out of town, or else charge for it.
“(We need) a new elementary school with an incentive for increased revenues. And keep the school grant here for our uses.
That group also suggested using excess space for community functions, adult education and an international program.
“Get rid of our dilapidated buildings that are an eyesore,” they continued, “but keep the land for future sites for our new schools.
“And there’s nothing left to cut here, cut admin costs instead, and lobby for more provincial funding.”
When it was table #9s turn to speak, they agreed that much of what had been said around the room had been said there. They wanted to ask, however, what kind of message are they sending to their kids when the community ships them out, and what message are they sending to the community?
“We’d like you to send Duncan kids up here,” the spokesperson for that table suggested. “We are all in this together, and when you don’t support our schools at the lake, you aren’t supporting our communities,”
Many viable ideas, thoughts and suggestions were put forth from the round table discussions before the meeting was brought to a conclusion, first by Harper, then by the interim appointed school board trustee, Mike McKay.
The bottom line, Harper told the public, was that there was the district’s $3.8 million deficit had to be dealt with by next year’s budget, in 2013.
One resident asked if there was any bridge of time that could be implemented while some of their suggestions and ideas were put into place?
Harper replied that, no, they had to have a solution to the deficit by the 2013 deadline.
“So was this meeting all for naught,” another resident queried. This time it was McKay who replied.
“If there is a plan in place, to sustain the schools and attract tourism and families to the lake as part of the overall enrolment in the school district,” he said, “then that puts us on a firm footing.
“What I do know, he added, “is that if we went back to that slide that showed a red bar, and a bigger red bar (in deficit), we cannot go forward and continue to try to trim around the edges, because in places that have done that what we end up with is a school that’s open and no one is there.”