Early in his career when Jack Stevens taught at Lake Trail, he would walk to school through Puntledge Park and the trails on the Morrison Creek side of First Avenue. In 33 years as a teacher/principal in B.C., the retired Stevens never saw another quite like the site at Lake Trail/Puntledge.
“I never experienced a more exciting site,” Stevens told trustees of the Comox Valley School District (SD71) Tuesday at a townhall-style meeting at the Puntledge gym. “We’re all in this together. It’s a community resource. We’ve got to preserve the schools we have.”
SD71 acting superintendent Tom Demeo — in attendance Tuesday — has recommended closing École Puntledge Park Elementary as of June 30. Pending approval from the school board, Puntledge would operate out of Lake Trail.
Noting a “dangerous trend” of declining enrolments and an aging populace, Stevens suggests looking no further than Union Bay to see the effect of closing the area’s only school.
He also suggests combining Puntledge and Lake Trail into a campus community model, mirroring that in Cumberland.
“This is a golden opportunity to do something exciting,” said Stevens, who feels revitalizing downtown Courtenay would be impossible if Puntledge closes. “What’s the point of rezoning for more families if there is no school? Every time we close a school, we weaken the neighbourhood. We’re talking about the glue that holds neighbourhoods together.”
Others spoke about the natural beauty surrounding École Puntledge, and safety concerns associated with Lake Trail. A government review of seismic risk to B.C. schools concluded that Lake Trail is at ‘high risk of damage or structural failure’ in the event of an earthquake. Puntledge was not found to be at risk.
A study conducted by the Keep Puntledge at Puntledge group counted 621 non-school related cars passing at the Lake Trail/Willemar intersection, compared to 27 non-related vehicles at Fourth and Willemar, where Puntledge is located.
“This is one of the most beautiful schools that you could ever imagine,” said Joel Mortyn, who has a child in kindergarten at Puntledge. “It’s safe, the kids love it, there’s access to the outdoors…There’s a lot of passion behind this school.”
Former Puntledge student Katherine Tinmouth moved back to the Valley so her daughter could attend the same school.
“When I learned about the proposed closure I was shocked,” Tinmouth said. “It really is not a good long-term plan. We have the right number of students in West Courtenay for the three elementary schools that are here, they’re just not in the right places.
“The best decision is one that keeps our best schools open and working into the future. And this is our best school,” Tinmouth added. “The options for what it could be used for aren’t good. It could be boarded up, it could be rented, or it could be sold to a private institution. It could even be sold to a developer. In my opinion, none of those options are good.”
Demeo has also recommended transferring Lake Trail Grade 8 and 9s to Vanier Secondary.
“We’re not ready to go,” Lake Trail student Hannah Lewis told trustees. “We’re scared to move. If you move us, we have to go farther away.”
While SD71 is “badly under-funded,” Stevens feels the school board is “over-administrated.
“We have a system of administration that is not sustainable.”
The district is facing an estimated $2.4 million shortfall heading into the 2016/17 school year, largely due to a declining enrolment of 143 students. It says the proposed closure and other changes could save about $720,000 a year, but Keep Puntledge at Puntledge says this amount is less than one per cent of SD71’s annual operating budget.
The group has proposed various alternative solutions. One idea is to keep Puntledge open and move Navigate (NIDES) to Lake Trail.
It also suggests the following cost-saving measures:
•freeze new administrative hiring;
•reduce superintendent and secretary-treasurer salaries;
•consider if each school needs a vice-principal;
•reduce senior administration by three or more (retirement or reassignment);
•eliminate ‘district principal’ designation;
•reduce human resources staff.
The school board will discuss the proposed closure of Puntledge — and other consultations — Tuesday, March 15.