Update 30-31 March 2016:
I missed the SD67 meeting tonight because I help coach my daughters' volleyball on Wednesday nights. All I know is that SD67 decided to close West Bench Elementary despite the subsidization proposal below (story in The Herald). Thanks to those who filled me in on the details at the meeting.
I have requested reconsideration as outlined in the follow-on post.
As some may have noticed on the Keep West Bench Elementary Open! Facebook group, the RDOS has been asked to "do something" about the impending closure of West Bench Elementary. This is tricky. To this point, the RDOS has stayed out of the debate (as is appropriate since the Board of Education is a duly elected government in its own right). We have supplied SD67 with some information about growth potential and so on (as documented in this thread). Unfortunately it was insufficient to convince the majority of trustees on the Board of Education.
Now that the (provisional) decision to close West Bench Elementary has been made, it may be time to consider more drastic measures. As noted previously, the RDOS has no role in the decision to close a school and no right to meddle in the decisions of another level of government. The RDOS can, however, change the economic structure of the decision if residents want us to.
The chain of reasoning goes something like this:
- Utilization of West Bench Elementary is currently low. There are few students relative to the physical size of the school and the number of teachers. This is reasonably well documented by SD67.
- The implication of low utilization is that the cost-per-pupil of West Bench is higher than other schools in the district. This is seen by the Board of Education as a source of unfairness.
- Rural schools in Naramata and Kaleden (and elsewhere in the province) face the same economic reality. However, in some rural areas, the Province of British Columbia provides an additional subsidy to rural schools so their cost-per-pupil (as seen by the local school district) is more in line with the district average. For this reason, Naramata and Kaleden were excluded from consideration in SD67's school closure decision.
- Such rural subsidies might make sense if the province as a whole depends on people living in rural areas for beneficial economic activity such as agriculture, forestry, resource extraction, and so on. However, it is hard to argue that the West Bench qualifies for a provincial rural subsidy because very little beneficial economic activity is tied to its ruralness. Indeed, most of us live in this rural area because we want to, not because our livelihoods depend on it. You may argue that the same logic applies to Naramata, Kaleden, and Trout Creek, but that is a discussion for a different day. The point is: (a) the West Bench Elementary does not qualify for a provincial rural subsidy and (b) I am not optimistic that this will change.
- Having said that, the West Bench is rural enough (that is, far enough away from Penticton) that not having a neighborhood school imposes significant costs on the parents of children. Carmi Elementary school is simply not within walking distance of any property on the West Bench and thus parents must make some arrangements to get their kids to school. Although school buses run on the West Bench, the distances between houses and bus stops are often considerable. And the buses take a long time to wend their way through our low-density neighborhoods.
- The additional costs incurred by parents of school-aged children due to school closure will impact all property owners on the greater West Bench. Since the loss of the neighborhood elementary school makes the West Bench less desirable for families, there will be less demand for homes on the West Bench. The expectation is thus that property values on the West Bench will decrease.
- Bottom line: The loss of West Bench Elementary creates some economic costs for all property owners on the greater West Bench. Although it is very difficult to quantify these costs, I assume they are not trivial.
- West Bench residents should therefore be willing to pay some amount (less than their closure costs) to keep the school open.
So what is being proposed is a subsidy that puts West Bench Elementary on the same footing as Naramata and Kaleden schools. The difference is that this subsidy will be paid by greater West Bench taxpayers rather than the province. The amount of money we are talking about is not pocket change: if we assume an operating grant of $150K per year (like Naramata and Kaleden) split between the 700 or so properties in the West Bench, Sage Mesa, Husula Highlands, and Westwood Properties neighborhoods we are looking at an additional tax of about $220 per year for the average household. High-valued properties may end up paying closer to $500/year; low-valued properties may pay closer to $100/year.
The potential role of the RDOS in this scheme is simply as tax collector. The RDOS can levy a tax against every property in the West Bench school catchment and forward the money as an operating grant to SD67 on behalf of West Bench Elementary. Regional districts in British Columbia are permitted to do this. Indeed, they are permitted to collect taxes for any purpose EXPLICITLY PERMITTED by the majority of taxpayers in the affected area.
Two questions remain unresolved:
- Will SD67 accept this proposal? I assume they will given their previous decision not to consider Naramata and Kaleden for closure due to the significant rural grants.
- Will residents of the greater West Bench agree to pay more out of their own pockets to keep their rural school open? This is certainly not my decision. It is YOUR decision as residents and taxpayers. Nothing happens on this until we receive voter assent.
I have attached the formal letter of proposal I sent to SD67 Chair Van Alphen this morning:
Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns, or encouragement. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the comment feature below.