The proposed closure of École Puntledge Park Elementary is symptomatic of a province-wide trend that has reached a breaking point, says the Official Opposition spokesperson for education in B.C.
“Schools with healthy, stable enrolments are slated for closure by school districts who are under the gun on provincial spending cuts for so called ‘administrative savings’,” says Rob Fleming, the Victoria-Swan Lake NDP MLA who plans to attend Tuesday’s school board meeting when trustees discuss the proposed closure. “These cuts are coming one of two ways: elimination of staff and programs, and the closure of schools. After a decade of under-funding in public education, we are now literally at the breaking point.”
Comox Valley School District (SD71) acting superintendent Tom Demeo has recommended closing Puntledge as of June 30. Pending board approval, it would operate out of Lake Trail Middle School. A groundswell of opposition has developed since SD71 first proposed the closure last year.
Since the Liberals have come into power, Fleming says B.C. has gone from second-best to second-worst in terms of funded provinces for K to 12 education — $1,000 less per pupil than the Canadian average. And while B.C. has passed slight budgetary increases that don’t even cover inflation, he says other provinces have made significant investments, thereby widening the gap.
Locally, SD71 is facing an estimated $2.4 million shortfall heading into the 2016/17 school year, largely due to a declining enrolment of 143 students.
“In many cases, the $54 million cuts that the Province has forced onto school districts is equal to the amount of money that districts have to consider saving by closing schools,” Fleming said.
“If you take those cuts off the table, at the very least, it would be a greater measure of calm and stability in the system, and then we could address the more systemic funding challenges.”
He notes similar problems in other parts of the province. Osoyoos, for instance, is fighting to save its only elementary school (the proposal is to bus students to Oliver). Rural schools in Quesnel are also under threat.
While enrolment has grown in Salmon Arm/Armstrong, Fleming says that district is nevertheless looking at closing up to four schools.
Fleming also notes that government expected modest enrolment this year but received a “significant bump” of 6,800 students in B.C.
“There’s no question things have changed on the enrolment side.”
Ten years ago, he says Surrey was the only one of 60 B.C. school districts that was growing. Now, however, there are more than 20 growing districts.
Dozens more are stable and only a few in decline, though not the steep decline seen a decade ago.
“If they take these cuts off the table, it would give districts some breathing room,” Fleming said. “The government has made no case for so called ‘administrative savings cuts.’
“B.C. has the leanest school administration in Canada, and possibly North America, according to a recent study. And they’ve been cutting for more than 10 years, so there’s nothing left there. There’s no ‘low-hanging fruit,’ as the Premier insists.”