Provincal intervention in school closure decision

James Miller from the Herald asked my option the the province's intervention in the school closure decision.  My response is below.  Representatives from the RDOS will meet with the province at UBCM in order to make the case that school closure decisions should be made on a wider basis.

This whole episode shows the messy division of labor between school boards and local government.  Both Trout Creek and West Bench are transitioning from true rural to suburban status--less agriculture, more homes.  However, this transition process has been slowed considerably in the last few years by economic stagnation.  We have been left with a large gap between the potential growth of these neighborhoods and their actual growth.  This in turn has led to conflict in the mandates of the Board of Education and local governments.

Specifically, what the Board of Education sees on the West Bench and in Trout Creek is low enrollment.  Since that board's mandate is to spend efficiently on education, it naturally wants to consolidate and make better use of its assets.  What local governments see in these neighborhoods, in contrast, is prime locations for renewal and growth. The obvious problem is that that growth in family-oriented suburban neighborhoods is highly dependent on schools. So one of our most important amenities (in terms of attracting young families and demographically-balanced growth) is in the hands of an organization that has a very different mandate (efficient education).  All our work modernizing water and providing recreational infrastructure to create an attractive neighborhood is thus undermined.

Given this, I think the intervention of the province is appropriate.  The province's mandate encompasses both education and the broader health of communities.  Moreover, the province has the financial flexibility to do something that Boards of Education cannot do and local governments are reluctant to do: take long term bets on growth.  SD67 was unwilling to keep West Bench open in case its enrollment grew.  This is understandable given their mandate and constraints.  But, without the school, the neighborhood is clearly less attractive to families. So a closed school makes low enrollment self-fulfilling.  By keeping West Bench open, the province is betting that we can attract families and balanced demographic growth.  This is quite different from propping up a rural school that is doomed in the long run.  Rather, this is investing in a rural neighborhood as it transitions to the next stage of development.

It is no secret that Penticton needs to grow a bit.  It seems to be slightly below the critical mass for a thriving, viable community. I am not suggesting Kelowna-type growth, but more than we have seen recently.  However, the city (broadly defined) clearly faces significant physical barriers to growth on all sides (lakes, landfill, PIB lands, ALR lands, and so on).  The West Bench is one of the few places offering a realistic opportunity for the housing mix that will attract money, jobs, and opportunity.  So I think the province's bet on the West Bench is a good deal for all of us.


I should add that MLA Ashton has made it abundantly clear that the West Bench School funding is not forever and not unconditional.  The West Bench needs to see some growth if it wants to keep its school.  So we as a community have to decide which is better: a low-amenity rural-residential neighborhood (status quo, less an elementary school) or something different.  We all need to start thinking (realistically) about this.

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