When parents and area residents left the Bridge Lake Elementary School (BLES) gymnasium after the public meeting called by School District #27 (SD27) on March 2, most were disgruntled and disappointed.
These folks also felt they didn’t get any information from SD27 and the school trustees that would help them form arguments against the potential closure of BLES due to the lack of students.
When imposing a 90-day consultation period to consider the school closure, the school board trustees took into account:
• The decline of students from 27 in 2013/14 to six in 2015/16;
• The impact of the lack of students was having on SD27’s budget; and
• The proximity of the BLES to Horse Lake Elementary School being 38 kilometres.
The initial agitation at the forum was how the format had been changed 24 hours before it was held.
The expected public forum had been changed to a World-Café format that many of the 160 parents, residents and business owners in attendance thought was an attempt to put a gag on people from talking about what they thought was the reason for the rapidly declining enrolment at the school.
SD 27 schools superintendent Mark Thiessen told the members of the public that statements about behaviour or conduct of any specific staff member would not be tolerated.
He also refused to change the format that went on for more than 90 minutes even though only a few people talked to the table facilitators to voice their concerns and offer information.
Most of the people mingled with friends and talked about how peeved they were with the meeting format and what a waste of time it was for everyone.
Cariboo Regional District Area L Director Brian Coakley noted he talked to Thiessen.
“I told him it was the most undemocratic meeting I ever attended in my life. People should be allowed the opportunity to speak at the [microphone] and when they finish speaking, they should sit down and the next person gets up to speak, and if we’re here to [midnight], we have to wait until everyone is heard and then we go home.
“This idea of having cards where you fill in the questions … I don’t know if all those questions will be asked; I don’t know if someone will go through those questions and only ask the ones they want to answer. That is totally undemocratic.”
The second agitation was SD27 secretary-treasurer Kevin Futcher going through budget impacts BLES would have on the school district if it remained open or closed under current enrolment.
Futcher’s bottom line: if the school remained open next year, there would be a $93,967 deficit; and if it closed, there would be a $91,802 surplus.
After the first year of closure, SD27 would realize at $271,504 savings.
It was noted by some audience members that this savings would take a bite out of the school district anticipated half-million-dollar budget deficit for the next few years.
Some people muttered that this was the real reason for the school closure and said they believed the school trustees had already made up their minds to close the school.
After the presentation, BLES Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) president Piri de Vries asked Thiessen when people were going to see all the information SD27 refused to provide until the March 2 meeting.
The SD27 staff and trustees had refused to answer questions about potential students, economic impact on school closure, as well as bus times and distances that the PAC and the Interlakes Economic Association had sent to the school district.
Area residents were also upset their elected school trustee refused to meet with the PAC to discuss the potential closure.
After a few weeks of waiting for answers, Thiessen said the board and staff wouldn’t be providing information until the March 2 meeting when they would provide all the information to the public, “so everyone would have it at the same time.”
At the meeting, Thiessen told de Vries that what they presented was all the information they had.
That comment resulted in angry shouts from the audience.
During the World-Café format, which ran for almost two hours, many people complained that is was an attempt to divide the audience so it could not provide a united front against the school closure. Many also said they felt they were being disrespected.
Area building contractor Mark Williamson was one of them.
He eventually spoke about the affects closing BLES would have on the Interlakes area.
“I talked to the boss Mark Thiessen and they are closing the school based on the projected losses of approximately $95,000 to $100,000 a year.
“When I moved to the community, I invested over a million dollars in property.
“I have since started a company. I have employed two local residents, and my contribution to the community of Bridge Lake is well in the excess of a million dollars.
“I also know of a great number of other people who have moved to the community who have also invested a large amount of money in excess of a million dollars.
“And the school district is saying it’s going to close the school for 90 grand.
“In the past, the PAC has raised in excess $20,000 on their own, let alone other contributions from the community.
“So I think it’s a pretty poor decision to shut a community down for 90 grand.
“If they haven’t considered the impact to the community, they should talk to the business groups and not just dictate to them what you can and can’t say. I think they should listen and respond a lot better.”