Following a stunning and unexpected commitment of millions of dollars in funding Wednesday to keep rural schools in B.C. open, trustees with School District 53 have been provided the funding they say wasn’t available to keep Osoyoos Secondary School open.
The provincial Liberal government announced around 1:30 p.m. it would provide more than $2.7 million in funding to try and keep nine rural schools, including OSS, open now and in the future.
To help rural schools in British Columbia stay open, Premier Christy Clark announced a new Rural Education Enhancement Fund.
Districts outside Greater Victoria, the Lower Mainland, and Kelowna will be able to apply for ongoing provincial funding that recognizes the unique challenges faced in keeping schools open in rural communities.
“Closing the only high school or elementary school in a rural community has a large impact on that local economy,” Clark said. “With Canada’s strongest economy, it’s important that we make sure the benefits are shared by rural communities throughout our province to ensure they have the infrastructure they need to grow, attract talent, and provide critical services like health care. Our rural education strategy will help us accomplish this.”
The amount of funding districts will be eligible for is to be equal to their expected savings from closing the school.
In the case of OSS, trustees who voted to close the school in late April, stated closing OSS for the 2016-17 school year would save the district around $400,000.
Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson, in a phone interview from Quesnel where she and members of the Liberal caucus had gathered for meetings, said shortly after the announcement she fully expects OSS to remain open.
Larson was officially named parliamentary secretary for rural education in the same press release that announced the funding to rural schools on Wednesday.
This new funding will be in addition to the $118,000 Larson announced to School District 53 two weeks ago as part of $25 million in administrative savings given back to school districts across the province.
The trustees with School District 53 have stated financial stresses due to declining enrolment on their annual budget as the reason for closing the school and that financial stress will be eliminated with this latest announcement, said Larson.
“The ultimate decision still lies with the school board … but having removed the biggest obstacle to keeping the school open, which is financial, it’s now up to them to come up with a different arrangement since they’ve now been given the money they need to keep the school open.”
Contrary to what many residents of Osoyoos think, Larson said she has been working diligently behind the scenes to try and keep OSS open since trustees voted to close the school on April 26.
She first presented Clark with her serious concerns about the impact closing OSS would have on local residents and the local economy more than two months ago, said Larson.
“She listened to what I had to say and saw merit in the arguments I was trying to make,” she said.
With several other school districts voting to close rural schools over the past several months, Ministry of Education staff have worked diligently over the past eight or nine weeks to formulate a financial plan designed to meet the unique financial challenges faced by schools in rural areas of this province, she said.
While Wednesday’s announcement stated the nine schools will have “to apply” for funding, Larson said the money is available and can be forwarded to affected school districts in a very short time period.
“School districts have until June 30 to submit their budgets … and this money will be available to them long before this deadline,” she said.
The decision to approve this funding came after Clark and the Ministry of Education agreed that local economies would suffer immensely if these rural schools were closed, said Larson.
“There’s no doubt that local economies would suffer immensely if these schools close,” she said. “It just made a lot of sense to ensure local economies could be sustained by providing the funding to keep those rural schools open.”
When asked why the Liberal government didn’t provide this funding five months ago when School District 53 trustees first announced they would consider closing OSS, Larson said she has been discussing the issue of funding for rural schools with her counterparts in the Ministry of Education for more than two years.
“I have been working on this issue for a very long time,” she said. “A matter of when can be debated, but the bottom line is we’ve done what needed to be done to keep these rural schools open.”
Districts would be able to apply annually for Rural Education Enhancement Funding if they meet the following criteria:
- In a rural community or sub-community outside Greater Victoria, the Lower Mainland, and Kelowna areas with a population less than 15,000;
- Closure would eliminate specific grades within the community;
- Funding is used to keep the school open; and
- Closures due to facility condition or extreme enrolment decline are not included.
While the ongoing Rural Education Enhancement Fund will help keep schools open starting this coming school year, Clark also tasked Larson and parliamentary secretary for rural development Donna Barnett to conduct a full study of rural education funding in the province to seek a long-term solution.
The Rural Education Strategy will look at rural school district budgets and the role education and schools play in communities outside the Lower Mainland, Greater Victoria, and Kelowna.
The strategy will aim to find solutions for the unique challenges facing rural school districts while recognizing the economic impact of single schools in small communities.
Details of the review will be announced in the near future.
“For students, families, and rural areas, the local school is the centre of the community and the local economy. In my time as minister I’ve seen that our education funding model doesn’t take all the unique rural factors into account,” Minister of Education Mike Bernier said. “My ministry will work with the parliamentary secretaries to take a hard look at how we can make sure the unique community and economic role of rural schools is supported in how we fund school districts.”
School District 53 board chair Marieze Tarr could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
By Keith Lacey