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Debate nears decision day

As School District No. 46 (SD46) heads into final school closure decisions Feb. 16, the board is warning parents that, with the district bracing for a $2.

As School District No. 46 (SD46) heads into final school closure decisions Feb. 16, the board is warning parents that, with the district bracing for a $2.2 million shortfall next year, keeping small schools open could mean sacrificing their principals, support staff or programming funds.

"If the decision was made to keep two of [Sechelt, Davis Bay and Kinnikinnick elementary] schools open, do not assume that they will both receive a base [funding] allocation, do not assume they will both have principals, do not assume that there will be support staff in both those places," district superintendent Deborah Palmer told parents and community members who gathered in Chatelech Secondary School's theatre Tuesday evening, Feb. 1, for the district's last public consultation meeting before the vote. "We have to find that money somewhere; the budget has to balance."

The district launched discussions of school closures last year to address a significant decline in student enrolment. The board will vote Feb. 16 about whether to close one or more of: Sechelt, Davis Bay and Kinnikinnick elementary schools.

At the public meeting, secretary-treasurer Diane Ready summed up the new cuts and costs the district faces, which range from the loss of the district's annual facilities' grant, to rises in property insurance and Medical Service Plan premiums, to unfunded inflation.

Palmer then explained how the new all-day kindergarten program, slated to kick off next year unless the district decides to opt out, intersects with the school closures debate.

The key issue, she said, is that smaller schools would be faced with running all-day kindergarten/Grade 1 splits, which are "not very enticing, educationally," as the two grades have very different learning focuses.

When the microphone was opened up to the public, the board heard some entreaties to keep schools open - notably Davis Bay.

"By closing Davis Bay, we will be losing one of the treasures of the Sunshine Coast," Elaine Lacasse said. "The children all know one another. A small school develops its own unique identity, precious and intimate. To a small child especially, it offers stability and reassurance in an otherwise overwhelmingly-large world."

Lennea Perpet made the counter argument: "How much, in good conscience, are we as parents and you as trustees in the education system willing to take away, district-wide, from students - such as maybe band programs or whatever -to keep trying to fund underpopulated schools?" she asked.

But beyond the question of school closures, parents and community members drew together against a common threat: inadequate provincial education funding.

"I think the real question here is, 'Is education sustainable on the current provincial government's funding formula?' and if it's not, why set us all against each other on side issues?" asked Marilyn Chrystal, whose grandchildren attend Davis Bay.

Kurt Vernon was even more vehement: "It's not good enough," he said. "It's just, in any developed culture - in European culture - this is what you do, you educate your people."

At the end of the meeting, Palmer reiterated the complexity of the decision the board faces, and thanked speakers for their passion for their schools.

"We expect people to be passionate about their [school] community. Continue to do that right up until the moment that the board makes a decision," she said. "But then, get on board with the decision and help us move together and make it work. The kids are counting on you, and they're counting on us."