Richmond parents challenge school closures

Emotions ran high at school board meeting as potential closure of three elementaries was top of the agenda

There were tears, jeers, pleas and applause at Monday night’s standing room-only school board meeting, as parents challenged trustees on a report that recommends closing three elementary schools: Dixon, Woodward and McKay.

At one point, Debbie Tablotney, chair of the board of education, said she had to gain control of the gallery as the boos and back talk were interfering with the recording of the meeting.

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Parents from Dixon elementary filled many of the seats as that school is the biggest and perhaps most complicated of the three to close, as is recommended by superintendent Sherry Elwood, following a year-long public consultation process and assessment of facilities by district staff.

“In most of Richmond, declining neighbourhood enrolment has resulted in under-utilization of school capacity,” stated the district, as to its reasoning for the closures which, if approved by trustees, will take effect July 1, 2017.

“In some schools, student populations are so small the school district cannot offer the optimal range of programs. Trustees need to make a decision on which schools to close to ensure facilities are used in an effective and fiscally responsible way,” What frustrated many of the parents at the meeting was the fact Dixon is already over capacity, and the report recommends sending many of the students to Diefenbaker elementary, which is also at capacity.

“Why us?” was a common refrain.

The answer, in part, is because the earlier public consultation processes found parents were particularly concerned about having schools within a 15-minute walk of their homes. And because there are a number of other elementary schools in the area, students living within the Dixon catchment would still be within that 15-minute “walkshed” if Dixon was closed.

The catch, however, is that Dixon has a French immersion program and many of those students (slightly less than 50 percent) are out of catchment.

It’s the notion that those students are portable because many of them are not in the walkshed, that angers some.

Dixon should not be penalized because it is a school of choice, argued Stephanie Dunn, adding that parents chose the school not just because of French immersion, but because it’s a unique community.

The report offers the board two options for Dixon’s closure.

The first option sees Dixon’s English-track students go to underutilized Gilmore elementary and its French students go to Diefenbaker elementary (creating an early and late French immersion program there). In this scenario, about half of the English students will have a long walk to school.

Diefenbaker would also require four portables, according to the report, as its population would balloon to an estimated 572 students.

The second option sees Dixon students split up, with those in the northern catchment going to Gilmore and those in the southern catchment going to underutilized Steves elementary. Additionally, Gilmore would take on some French students, meaning only one “short term” portable would be needed at Diefenbaker. The English students would have an easier walk to school, as well.

One thing that upsets parent Stacy Takeno, about either scenario, is that it would require her children to move to a school that is even more seismically challenged than Dixon.

“Just because we’re out of catchment, it doesn’t mean we don’t matter,” she added.

It wasn’t just Dixon families making pleas to the board. A mother of four, her oldest a Grade 1 student at McKay, said the trek to Grauer elementary, which the report says has space to accommodate McKay students,  is just too much with all her children, the youngest an infant.

The estimated 120 Woodward students would also be looking at a longer walk if their school closes as they are expected to merge with Kidd elementary, whose population will increase to about 280. The report states the students will still be within the recommended 15-minute walk to school, although parents have expressed concerns about crossing railway tracks and busy Shell Road.

Woodward requires an estimated $12.7 million in seismic upgrades, is the most below capacity, along with Grauer elementary (55 per cent), and has the highest operating costs per student.

A McKay parent asked the board to at least add a couple of other schools to the list. If there are only three schools to vote on — and with closing those it only takes the district to 91 per cent capacity — it seemed inevitable all three would be closed, he said. However, trustees were at pains to say that these were just recommendations and that no decision has been made.

Moreover, trustee Donna Sargent said the 95 per cent threshold is a “red herring,” and people shouldn’t focus on that. The real issue is running the district efficiently so there is more money for programs. She added that she’s been a trustee for 14 years and has consistently been forced to make cuts. The objective of this process is to ensure programs remain secure.

 Community activist Henry Yao recognized the difficult position trustees are in but asked if it wasn’t time they stopped cutting and started fighting back.

“Tell the provincial government, ‘enough is enough.’ We’re not here looking for people to follow a line. We’re looking for people to step out of line and show leadership.”

Dixon parent Amie Nowak also questioned whether the trustees had done enough to counter the province’s demand. She also asked what kinds of assurances they have from the province that it will provide the funding for seismic upgrades if the schools are closed.

 The Ministry of Education has stated the district must provide a “business case” for a school to receive much-needed seismic upgrades. According to the district the Ministry has stated a 95 per cent “utilization threshold” is the “guideline” for districts to qualify.

Tablotney said she has her “fingers crossed” to see if the Ministry accepts the fact the three closures only bring Richmond’s utilization threshold from 85 to 91 per cent.

And if it doesn’t?

“Then we would be back to finding something else. I don’t even want to think of that scenario,” said Tablotney, noting the recommendations must still be finalized with a vote at the Oct. 17 board meeting. Until then, trustees will set up closure committees to evaluate the report and the process. A meeting with Dixon parents will be held at the school Sept. 27.

By closing the three schools, the district will save $750,000 in annual operating costs.

Superintendent Elwood said once this process is completed, the board will need to look at possible closures of secondary schools and Sea Island elementary.

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