Noting the potential for serious health and cultural impacts, parents of West Bench Elementary students are asking their community’s school be removed from the list of those identified for possible closure.
“Our whole community is dependent on that school. It’s how we stay connected, it’s how our friends know their neighbours, and we think that’s pretty important,” said Riley Gettens on behalf of the West Bench Parent Advisory Council.
It’s one of five facilities the Okanagan Skaha School District is considering closing to cut costs and excess capacity. A final decision is expected Jan. 20.
Most students affected by the closure of West Bench Elementary would be bused six kilometres to Carmi Elementary in Penticton.
The parent council fears doing so would cut the school’s connections to the Penticton Indian Band and the West Bench’s history as a haven for war veterans. It’s also worried students will miss out on the exercise they get walking to and from school, and lose their sense of community.
“They’re benefits that apply to every neighbourhood school, so parents at Parkway would feel the same way as they do at Uplands or Carmi, and we do think that keeping neighbourhood schools is important, so ideally it would be great if we could look at more options that don’t include elementary schools,” said Gettens.
As of Sept. 30, the school had 92 students, leaving it at 60 per cent of capacity, according to information released by the school district, which estimates closing the facility would save $360,000 per year.
Michael Brydon, who represents the West Bench on the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, understands the need to cut costs, but also empathizes with parents and students.
“As a parent and the RDOS guy up here, obviously I want West Bench to stay open, but I think I recognize at the same time that if that happens, it’s going to be at the expense of Carmi and even Parkway,” he said.
Brydon believes, however, that closing West Bench Elementary may be premature, since the area has potential to add many more people if residents choose densification over maintaining the rural agricultural tradition.
“If we do grow, it would be a shame to shut that elementary school down just to need it in five years,” he said.
School board chairwoman Linda Van Alphen confirmed she’s received a report from the West Bench Parent Advisory Council that outlines its concerns, but doesn’t intend to remove the facility from the list of closure candidates contained in nine separate options being considered.
“We’re just absolutely committed to this process – and we have to be,” said Van Alphen, who nonetheless appreciates the parents’ submission.
“We’re looking for good, factual, respectful feedback,” she noted.
Van Alphen expects to receive similar reports from parent advisory councils at other schools that are on the chopping block, and encouraged anyone who wants to weigh in to attend one of the upcoming public consultation meetings.
The next one is scheduled for Thursday from 7-9 p.m. at Queen’s Park Elementary.