Premier Christy Clark travelled to Quesnel last week to announce a new education fund that could prevent the closing of as many as nine rural schools this year, but in a dozen communities around B.C., schools will be permanently shut after classes are dismissed and report cards are handed out this week.
In Bridge Lake, a rural ranching community in the Cariboo, the school that provides the regional library, Kidspace after-school and Meals on Wheels programs, hot meals for students, adult-education classes and Head Start preschool services is expected to be closed this summer.
Bridge Lake Elementary did not meet the criteria for the Premier's new rural education-enhancement fund because of extremely low enrolment – only eight pupils were signed up for next September. It means the students will have to transfer to an elementary school that is a 40-minute drive away.
"This community is eventually going to disappear," predicted Murray Helmer, president of the Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers' Association.
A week before the Vancouver School Board unveiled a list of 12 schools up for possible closing, the Premier spoke of the special hardship that can come in rural communities that lose their schools. She promised a new $2.5-million fund designed to save nine schools that were expected to close.
"It's been a real problem with school closures," she said during a speech to the Quesnel Chamber of Commerce. "I know that when a community loses its only school, that community begins to feel itself withering away. The school, the post office, the general store, each one of these really matters. And I don't think anything matters more than a school in a community."
However, for the schools that are eligible for funding, the announcement comes so close to the deadline for school board budgets that it is not clear how many will close anyway.
Parkland and Kersley elementary schools in the Quesnel district are on the government's list of eligible schools, but parents, students and staff have already been told they are closing.
"We went through this budget process, the community was mad at us and we still have a deficit to deal with," said Tony Goulet, chair of the Quesnel school board. He said the Premier's surprise announcement came after next year's school budget was almost finalized. "We'll apply for the funding, but the whole process is a big question mark."
Mr. Goulet also questioned the government's selection criteria: Another elementary school in Quesnel with a larger enrolment than both those schools put together will still be shut. "It's frustrating," he said. "We don't know what the rationale was."
Jim Iker, the outgoing president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the Premier was correct in identifying the damage rural school closing can cause to communities. "It's unfortunate she didn't recognize this years ago. We've already had 241 schools closed and school districts have been in turmoil for the last number of months," he said. "It's seems to be an election ploy, not a concern for rural communities."
In 2010, the only elementary school in Mr. Iker's hometown of Topley was closed.
"It was a beautiful little school, the centrepiece of our community."
Six years later, he said, even the playground has been removed because it was deemed a liability. "Absolutely, the community is in trouble, there aren't people moving into the community with kids."
MLA Linda Larson, the new parliamentary secretary for rural education, did not return phone calls on Monday. An information bulletin prepared for school boards states that the deadline for funding applications is June 24 and decisions will be made by June 30 – the day boards must file their annual budgets with the ministry of education.
The money will cover only operating funds, so if a school that was slated to close requires capital funds for repairs, that would come out of the total envelope for capital projects. "It is important to remember that school closures due to poor facility condition are excluded from the Rural Education Enhancement Fund," the document states. "School districts should consider this when determining whether to make application to the program."
B.C. public school closures since 2002
SOURCE: B.C. Teachers' Federation