Parents fight to keep Bridge Lake Elementary School from closure

Bridge Lake community members travelled to Williams Lake Tuesday evening to plead their case to keep their small rural school open.

Bridge Lake community members travelled to Williams Lake Tuesday evening to plead their case to keep their small rural school open while trustees took another step in the process to possibly close it down.

Seven men and women addressed School District 27 trustees at a special open meeting about the potential school closure, some accusing the trustees and district staff of falling short on meaningful consultation with the community, of not addressing an underlying issue which created the decline in enrollment and of withholding information that would allow for a more informed discussion.

Arguments were also presented that the closure would lead to lengthy bus rides for young children – about 45 minutes extra to neighbouring Horse Lake Elementary School – while passionate pleas were made that rural schools are the heart of every community.

“Rural schools are essential, please remember that,” said Gail Larson.

Parent Cambria Volonte also made an appeal to keep the school open.

“I ask you please do not close our school. This is devastating for our community,” Volonte said.

After hearing from stakeholders, trustees proceeded as expected to give first and second readings to the recommended motion that the district close the school effective July 31, 2016.

Board chair Tanya Guenther reminded parents that giving the first and second readings allowed trustees to debate the closure and ask questions, and that the process did not reflect whether trustees will vote to close the school when they make their decision next week.

“It allows a full week of sober second thought,” Guenther said.

Trustees reviewed the school by the numbers – which showed Bridge Lake Elementary dropped down to just six students in the 195-capacity school for the 2015/16 school year. Two new students registered in March, however, the increase still puts the school below the government’s critical number of nine students to be eligible for a $162,400 rural schools grant.

In an unusual move following the numbers review, Guenther then read a statement from the Board “refuting allegations” that the trustees or district staff somehow sabotaged the school for closure. The statement also defended a report in which the Board said they would not be reviewing any schools for closure, noting the report was a living document subject to change and that enrollment at Bridge Lake Elementary had decreased to a critical level, forcing the 90-day public consultation process.

Guenther went on further to state she was dismayed as a board member that the public would accuse the Board of acting “unscrupulously and without integrity.”

“This is just not true,” Guenther said.

After the reading of the Board’s statement, tensions somewhat defused and trustees went on to discuss the challenging geography of the district, the cost of bussing and educating students on a shrinking budget.

Trustee Linda Nielsen and Trustee Joyce Cooper also spoke to the negative comments directed toward trustees as a result of the possible closure, noting they felt they’ve done the best they could.

Also noted at the meeting was the approximately $1.38 million in cost savings realized as a result of the 2013 district-wide consolidation where four schools were closed – three in Williams Lake and one in 100 Mile House.

That said, trustees were quick to remind the public they are expecting another $900,000 shortfall in next year’s budget due to the removal of funding protection for declining enrollment.

Parents had one more opportunity at the end of the meeting to share their thoughts.

“If you have kids, put yourselves in our shoes,” said one parent.

The vote on whether or not to close Bridge Lake Elementary School is expected to take place at the board’s next meeting April 26.