A $500,000 loss in revenue for School District 53, and an anticipated $1.6 million in needed upgrades are two of the reasons Cawston Primary School was able to avoid the chopping block – for now.
During a special meeting held last week at the school board office in Oliver, staff rolled out this year’s plan for offsetting a growing deficit and declining enrolment.
Although many in the community feared Cawston Primary School would be facing closure and Similkameen Elementary Secondary School would be turned into a kindergarten to Grade 12 school, staff at the school board instead recommended changes be made to schools in Osoyoos.
Two recommendations were moved, the first to close Osoyoos elementary school and change Osoyoos Secondary School to kindergarten to Grade 9 and the second to take Grades 10 to 12 students from the high school and transfer them to the South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver.
The potential closures of Osoyoos elementary is expected to be the first of several proposed closures as the school board wrestles with balancing budgets in the coming years.
The school board is facing a deficit that could grow to $1.4 million in 2017-2018 and a declining enrolment that would see 800 seats vacant across the district.
Sherri Philpott-Adhikary, Village of Keremeos councillor and school board liaison was greeted with applause from those at the school board meeting when she spoke out regarding the province’s role in the pending funding crisis.
“It’s none of our fault. It’s the government’s fault. We are not given sufficient funds to actually run the schools and I think we should be doing more lobbying as parent’s as employees of the district and as trustees and senior staff. We need to have more money in our systems to enable us to function properly,” said Philpott-Adhikary. “I don’t understand why we are not rising up and saying ‘give us the money for heaven’s sake.’ We are ruining a whole generation of kids who are not going to have as bright of futures as we have had. I think we need to keep that in our heads as the underlying message here.”
Looking ahead, the good news for the Lower Similkameen is that Cawston Primary enrolment numbers are expected to stay relatively stable but the bad news is the SESS numbers will drop.
Currently the population at Cawston Primary is 158 and is listed at 104 per cent capacity. The use of portables accommodates students allowing for some room for growth.
The school received a poor rating for it’s condition in the long-range facilities report.
SESS is projected to decline from a population of 359 to 320 students by fall of 2017. Currently capacity is at 62 per cent and with a projected decline it would be about 56 per cent capacity. SESS has a rating of very poor, and is actually listed as one of the worst facilities in the district.
Consolidating Cawston Primary and SESS into one school would mean a loss of $500,000 in revenue that comes from a small community supplement grant from the province.
If the board did ever proceed with a closure the price tag for necessary upgrades would be about $1.6 million.
“Closing schools is not why any of us became trustees. We don’t have much of an option how are we going to save this money and my fear is that this is only the beginning,” said chairperson Marieze Tarr during the special meeting last week.
In Osoyoos, board staff predict a more modest renovation budget compared to SESS.
Osoyoos high school would require a renovation of $430,000 to make it a K to Grade 9 facility. That money would come from the capital budget while the changes would require the addition of more bussing services.
The recommendations hit hard for some in the audience.
“I find it very difficult to accept that either one of these options is acceptable certainly not to people in Osoyoos,” said the town’s Mayor Sue McKortoff. “I know that when you have consultation in Osoyoos you are going to run into a great deal of confusion. It is going to be a huge issue.”
The second option of closing Osoyoos Secondary School and moving kids to the elementary school, “doesn’t even make sense” said McKortoff. According to the long-range facilities report, the school is graded as one of the best facilities in the district. The bulk of them fall in the “poor” category including Cawston Primary, Okanagan Falls Elementary, Oliver Elementary, Osoyoos Secondary and Tuc-El-Nuit.
Okanagan Falls trustee Sam Hancheroff expressed his frustration with government cutbacks to funding that saw the district lose programs such as ULearn for adult education which further impacted their enrolment numbers.
“They told us we have to cut things from our schools to make sure we don’t have deficits. I can vouch for the past six years we have been cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting,” he said of the budget which the board has saved $1 million since 2009. “It is a sad day for School District 53 education.”
The school district will provide information in the coming days regarding public consultation meetings.