Skip to main content

There is a manic glee in that Alice Cooper line "School's out forever," a perennial favourite of students since the 1970s pop song first hit the airwaves.

But school's final day was a gloomy affair marked by four generations of one Nanaimo family who walked the halls of Mount Benson Elementary this week for the last time.

Misty Duifhuis's grandfather first showed up on the school roll here in 1919. Her mother still recalls the names of her teachers, good and bad. Ms. Duifhuis looked into the cloakroom where she had been sentenced to time outs for laughing too much.

This week, her son Joshua, 7, attended the 134-year-old school's final assembly.

Mount Benson is a casualty of the school district's business plan. Like school districts across the province, squeezed by declining enrolment and funding shortfalls, the Nanaimo Board of Education's had to raise cash for needed projects by liquidating the only assets it has.

Mount Benson was among those closed so it could be prepared to go on the block.

Even before classes finished this week, crews were getting ready to tear out portables. Inside, the library was in a forlorn state, books already packed away in cardboard boxes. The band room was bare, never to hear the clamour of instruments again.

"It was sad, there is so much history here that is going to stop at my children," Ms. Duifhuis said. "It's like a chunk of the community is being broken up and spread out, it's not the centre any more. We are all being displaced."

Mount Benson, judged on its architecture alone, is less than endearing. It's been razed by fire twice, and the current building has spread in an ungainly fashion with half-a-dozen additions.

But it is nestled in a family community, surrounded by a generous expanse of playing fields. Many pupils here can find parents and grandparents in class photos on the wall that date back to 1894.

Joshua Duifhuis will go to another elementary school in September, but he doesn't expect to see any of his current classmates there. The 175 pupils who finished classes this week will be heading to at least four different schools.

Mount Benson is just one of 171 schools closed due to declining enrolment since the B.C. Liberal government took office in 2001. Six more are to close this year, while 26 new schools have been built in fast-growing communities.

It has brought tremendous upheaval to an estimated 22,000 pupils and their families.

Now the province is reconsidering the wisdom of selling off schools.

In an interview this week, Education Minister Shirley Bond said she wants to take a careful look at school closings and sales to ensure there are enough spaces left to meet future needs. The apparent change of heart comes as the province studies the feasibility of kindergarten classes for children as young as 3.

Ms. Bond said the school sales are not her ministry's doing; school boards make the decisions, she noted.

"We have taken, recently, a more hands-on approach, looking at what's happening with those buildings," she said in a telephone interview from Beijing, where she is meeting with educators to showcase B.C.'s education services. "We need to be prudent in the disposal of those assets."

That hands-on approach, school districts say, amounts to an informal moratorium on the sale of schools. Sales that were driven, they note, by criteria Ms. Bond's government imposed.

Shortly after the Liberals took office, schools became assets subject to multicriteria analysis that forced boards to sell "surplus" to get capital funding from the Education Ministry for maintenance and construction of other schools.

Here's how Mount Benson, Home of the Bobcats, became surplus:

Following ministry guidelines for facilities renewal, the school district produced a business plan identifying its needs, mainly a new high school. The ministry agreed to provide capital funding if the district would bring to the table almost half of the money.

"This money would come from ... the proceeds of the future sale of surplus assets," Ms. Bond wrote the school board last fall.

The board had its schools appraised and came up with a list of properties to sell. Four, including Mount Benson, were valued at a total of $8-million.

Jamie Brennan, chair of the Nanaimo Board of Education, said the school district had little choice. "We had to adapt, the ground was shifting under us."

Mr. Brennan doesn't think fewer, bigger schools is bad for education - so long as parents and teachers work to make it a good experience for the pupils, and that hasn't always happened in the emotional debate over school closings. "I've seen kids pushed up to the microphones," he said with distaste.

However, he also called the ministry's funding criteria "ridiculous" and short sighted.

"I guess the minister has felt the heat about the alienation of all these public assets," he said. "And quite rightly."

Even though the policy that led to the demise of Mount Benson is being reconsidered, Ms. Bond said the closings that have happened were justified. The total student body in B.C. has shrunk by 50,000 since 2001, a trend that is mirrored in other jurisdictions.

"Many parents will tell you that at the end of what is a very painful, personal process - and I would recognize that - they will say their children are being very well served in their new circumstances."

David Murchie isn't convinced. His youngest son was due to start kindergarten in September, and Thomas would have known everyone in his class from his neighbourhood. His older son is distraught over the move to a new school.

"It makes me feel sad," said seven-year-old John Murchie. "I'm not going to be with all of my friends." He can name two girls from his class who will be joining him at Rock City Elementary next year.

Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the closings hurt pupils who can least afford it.

"It is harmful to vulnerable children who have special needs, or who live in poverty." The closings also result in bigger, more crowded schools and that's not good for anyone, she said. "Smaller schools are better for children. There is less violence, less bullying."

Ms. Lanzinger welcomed the ministry's newfound caution about school closings and sales, but added, "They are 175 schools too late."

Jessica Van der Veen has emerged as a champion in the battle against the school closings. Although her teenaged daughter hasn't been directly affected, Ms. Van der Veen believes the public school system is being undermined.

The declining population of school-aged children is a flimsy excuse for cost-cutting, she said. "In the year 2005, we had the highest birth rate in Canada in seven years. Those children will be coming into the system in just two years," she noted.

In B.C., Statistics Canada shows the birth rate climbing in the consecutive years as well. "It seems so crazy. They are selling schools because of a temporary, 7-per-cent dip in enrolment," she said.

But the future of Mount Benson is looking a little brighter even as contractors pick off the pieces. What changed was a visit two months ago from the deputy minister of education, who advised against calling in the real estate agents. No "for sale" sign is up, and the district is negotiating with community groups to keep the school as some kind of public facility.

"The selling off of those public assets is probably not going to happen," Mr. Brennan predicted this week.

What about the business plan, the one that required cash from Mount Benson and others to pay for a new high school? "That was then," he said.

It may be too late to keep the school open, but Mount Benson has another chance to rise from the ashes.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe