Richmond's Sea Island elementary shuttered after only 13 students registered

It’s the little school that could no longer.

After years of watching its enrolment dwindling, cancelling its kindergarten program in April and a hastily called meeting for one issue, the Richmond Board of Education decided last week, with 13 registered students, there would be no classes at Sea Island elementary in September, effectively shuttering the school for 12 months.

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The board’s vote was unanimous - with the absence of Trustee Richard Lee – and it was followed by calls of “shame” from the audience of Burkeville families who had come to voice their opposition to the recommendation from the superintendent, Scott Robinson.

The anger and frustration of Burkeville families at the board meeting was palpable as 11 speakers, including one student from the school, addressed the trustees.

There was talk of fairness and rights, with accusations of the school district not trying to help the school to stay viable and criticism of the speed by which the decision was being made.

Burkeville resident Peter Jarvenpaa criticized the timing of the notification, late on a Friday after the school year was over and before the Canada Day long weekend.

He said that not calling it a school closure was a “Donald Trump-style spinning of the alternate facts.”

Sea Island parent Lori Cockerill pointed out to the board that some parents found out about the meeting and possible decision the night before.

“The fairness and justice approach to ethical decision-making states that we should treat all humans equally, or, if we need to treat them unequally, then at least fairly, based on some standard that is defensible,” Cockerill said. “I don’t think that the decision that is front of you tonight is defensible given the timeline that we’re talking about here.”

Some solutions suggested by parents included building a smaller school to replace Sea Island and expanding the catchment area to bring in more students.

The recommendation from the superintendent was to offer the Sea Island students placement at Brighouse elementary, which is about four kilometres away.

Families left scrambling

Cockerill’s eight-year-old son was ready to go from Grade 2 to Grade 3 at Sea Island elementary this fall.

She was gone over the long weekend without access to the internet and then, on Tuesday, saw posts on Facebook about the meeting. The letter to Sea Island parents had gone into her junk folder.

“It’s really super late to make any kind of plan – you can’t look at schools, some of them have steel bars over the windows, there are metal shutters, the doors are closed,” Cockerill told the Richmond News.

The board’s decision has left Cockerill and her family scrambling, looking at school rankings, trying to figure out the best place for their son.

Cockerill said she feels rushed to make a decision, thinking she had another year to think about the next place for her son to attend, and, although she was going to tour Brighouse, she said she doesn’t know much about the school.

“I don’t know anything about the curriculum, I don’t even know how big the school is. I know, based on the Fraser (Institute rankings), it’s not a great performing school,” she said. “If I had had more time, I probably would have selected a different school.”

Cockerill said, after speaking at the meeting, she felt “pretty disgusted” at the decision process. There wasn’t any back-and-forth between the parents and board, and she felt the school board members were “condescending, pedantic and dismissive.”

“It was really very clear to me they had met in advance of the meeting, prepared written statements – written statements - essentially with their decision which was all a ‘no,’” she said.

Robinson explained at the meeting that, in April, when the decision not to offer kindergarten classes was made, there were 22 students registered at Sea Island. On June 18, there were 17 students but no indication that number would fall. A newsletter went out to parents on June 22 to inform them that a teacher had been hired for the school. But, on the same day, Robinson found out from the principal that registration had dropped to 14, and on June 23 there were only 13 students registered at the school.

He informed the board on June 24 about the situation, and wrote his report by June 27. The agenda for the meeting was released to the public on Friday, June 28, the same day parents were sent emails letting them know about the upcoming meeting.

An email was sent to parents of registered students using the most current source of contact information, the school district clarified.

The drop in enrolment was “unexpected and significant,” said school district spokesperson David Sadler. “The district understands that this is a difficult time for Sea Island families and will be working closely with them to develop a transition plan that meets their needs.”

Facilities plan highlights Sea Island issues

The Long-Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), which was adopted by the school district in June and is meant guide the board in planning its buildings and properties, states that Sea Island might not be sustainable because of the “small school age population and maturing trends” in Burkeville. One strategy suggested was to consolidate it with Brighouse elementary and use it for other purposes, like daycare, preschool or swing space for seismic upgrade projects.

The physical condition of Sea Island elementary is rated as poor, its seismic risk is high and, at 70 years old, it is the oldest school in the district.

The school is built for 192 students. In the LRFP, its population was forecast to keep dropping, levelling off at 12 students in 2024 with no projected growth beyond that.

The operating and maintenance costs for keeping students at Sea Island elementary was close to $7,500 per student in 2018, compared to an average across the school district of $994.

Sea Island residents dispute these numbers, saying young families are moving into the neighbourhood and there are 14 kids in the local preschool. They also point out that the school generates revenue through leases for preschool, CUPE and park-and-fly.

But the school district said the recommendation was based on the quality of the educational program.

“The decision to not offer an educational program was in no way influenced by expenses and revenues associated with Sea Island,” said Sadler. “The decision was based on the quality of the educational program the district could reasonably offer, given such a small number of students.”

A raucous meeting

As trustees asked questions and made comments on the recommendation from the superintendent to not offer any educational programs in the fall, interjections thrown out from the audience cut through the board room.

Board chair Ken Hamaguchi pointed out the school district was following its bylaw and the School Act and that this was not a school closure - a school closure is when, for more than a year, there are no classes. However, if programs aren’t offered the next year as well, then they will have to enact a school closure process.

“According to the bylaw and School Act, basically it’s taking the year off – what happens the following year remains to be seen,” Hamaguchi said. This was followed by scoffing from the audience.

Trustee Donna Sargent, who moved the recommendation to not offer an educational program at Sea Island next year, said the board has been talking about Sea Island for a long time, trying to make something happen there, but it’s not as easy as just moving a program to the school.

“Our superintendent has said this is not a viable educational program,” Sargent said. “And I think we have to take the educational experience seriously.”

She said that it saddened her to move the recommendation, but there weren’t enough students to hold classes.  She added that the school district has to manage all facilities, and keep all schools viable.

“For a board member to keep seeing the enrolment drop in a school and just let it flounder is not acceptable and I know that’s hurtful to hear, but I have to do my job,” Sargent said. “It’s easy to take the easy way out. It’s not easy, we have to make hard decisions, and I am sorry.”

An audience member replied to Sargent’s comments saying “You created this situation.”

Trustee Debbie Tablotney said she started her career as a trustee fighting school closure and has seen many schools close, for example, Austin Harris elementary where her kids went, and Sidaway elementary.

“None of those schools that we closed were at 13,” she said. “That’s pretty low. I have to trust the superintendent when he says that (Sea Island is) not a viable program.” She added that delay is not an option.

In her comments on the recommendation, Trustee Sandra Nixon said this was a “difficult decision for all.” She added that the board was dealing with an emergent issue that came up suddenly, but they were reacting as quickly as possible. The quality of education must be top priority, she said, and other educational opportunities exist close by in the school district.

One audience member reacted by saying “you wrote that before you even showed up tonight” with others calling out “shame.”

In response to questions from the News, Nixon said that she had prepared notes that “covered several different decisions that I might possibly come to that evening.” After listening last Wednesday, she edited her notes based on speakers’ comments and her final decision was read from those notes.

Hamaguchi told the News the board didn’t make any decisions prior to the meeting, and trustees give “careful consideration” to the information they received including that from the public when making a difficult decision.

“After hearing from the public, trustees individually contemplated what had been said, and made their final decision based on all of the information and public feedback that had been provided,” Hamaguchi added.

In explaining his decision to vote to close this year’s programs at Sea Island, Hamaguchi said at the meeting the situation at the school has been going on for a long time, and the board was facing a “hard choice” now. While he recognized it might have an impact on future years, the decision was about a recommendation for the 2019/20 school year.

“I have lots of faith in our superintendent but, with or without his blessing, I look at this recommendation and it makes sense – it’s hard – but it makes sense to me,” Hamaguchi said. “I gotta go on what I think is best for the kids in the district. I could be wrong, but I have to go on what I think is best and I will live with the consequences.”

“I’m going to remember all your names in the next election – I’m not voting for any of you,” one audience member shouted at the board after trustees made their comments.

After the vote, there were comments of “shame” from the audience.

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