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Power to the pupils

School board executives were met with protesters outside the offices Tuesday, as the regular meeting included the decision on the recommended closure of École Puntledge Park Elementary. The protesters went home happy, as the board voted against the recommendation. - Photo by Scott Stanfield
School board executives were met with protesters outside the offices Tuesday, as the regular meeting included the decision on the recommended closure of École Puntledge Park Elementary. The protesters went home happy, as the board voted against the recommendation.
— image credit: Photo by Scott Stanfield

École Puntledge Park Elementary is staying open.

In a 6-1 vote Tuesday, Comox Valley school trustees defeated a recommendation to close and relocate the elementary school to Lake Trail Middle School.

Trustee Peter Coleman, the lone no vote, felt the school board faced two choices: either close Puntledge or lose another eight or 10 teaching positions.

“I see no alternative,” he said. “I’m not willing to vote for more teacher cuts.”

Trustee Sheila McDonnell — who recognizes the assets of both schools —  feels there is a choice.

“We have a magic thing. It (Puntledge) really is priceless,” McDonnell said to a round of applause from the standing-room-only crowd that spilled into the hallway at the SD71 office.

The proposed closure was one of several cost-saving ideas to deal with an estimated $2.4 million shortfall heading into the 2016/17 school year. The main problem is an estimated enrolment decline of 143 students.

A groundswell of opposition developed since the district first proposed the closure last year. Safety is a major concern. A government review of seismic risk in the event of an earthquake has Lake Trail at high while Puntledge was not found to be at risk. A study by the Keep Puntledge at Puntledge group counted 621 non-school related cars passing at the Lake Trail/Willemar intersection, while 27 non-related vehicles passed near Puntledge.

McDonnell said the traffic numbers are “compelling.” She has heard “overwhelmingly” from the public about the importance of École Puntledge — its quiet access and play space — which can’t be replicated at Lake Trail.

“Will we end up with a jerry-rigged school instead of this priceless gem?” she said. “The two schools are designed to meet certain needs.”

Trustee Ian Hargreaves, who taught at Puntledge for 10 years, does not feel the school is a gem, though he agrees the location might be.

“I wish we had the money to redo the inside of it and make it into what it should be,” he said, noting a 2008 deferral to close Puntledge. “But at this point it has classrooms that are used as hallways. That is not a good learning environment for anyone’s children.”

If Puntledge were to close, board chair Tom Weber’s concern would be the likelihood of a third party using the site for independent education purposes — which would draw from SD71’s student population.

“Should Puntledge close, what would be its future use?” said Weber, who feels relocating the board office is “highly unlikely.”

Before the vote, trustee Janice Caton had been “on the fence.”

“This is a terribly difficult situation,” trustee Vickey Brown said, noting Puntledge needs $500,000 worth of deferred maintenance.

“We need to look at the long-term health of SD71. I believe Lake Trail is the better school.”

Considering efforts to revitalize West Courtenay, trustee Cliff Boldt feels that closing Puntledge and Lake Trail as a middle school (proposed transfer of Grade 8s and 9s to Vanier Secondary) would decrease the district’s options.

Boldt noted that Courtenay council approved a motion from Coun. Erik Eriksson to write a letter of concern, highlighting the importance of Puntledge Elementary for the livability of the community.

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