Every new portable added to a Central Okanagan public school adds a $250,000 cost to the school district budget.  (File photo)

Central Okanagan School District to seek greater public advocacy support

Trustees want ministry of education to address ‘dire straits’ regarding school space crunch

Central Okanagan Public Schools wants to enlist school parents and local education partners and stakeholders in a public advocacy movement to try to influence provincial government capital school funding priorities.

The Central Okanagan Board of Education has approved an strategic outline plan to engage local support for solutions, namely building new schools or updating existing ones, to counter the dire straits facing the school district with all the senior secondary schools projected to be maxed out for enrolment by 2025.

“We need to get out the message that we are in trouble as a school district for available (student space) and we need the ministry of education to start responding now,” said Ryan Stierman, secretary-treasurer/CFO of the school district.

“We need the community to rally around us as we are running out of time to get these (capital) approvals…we are in dire straits as a school district to accommodate 21st century education demands with a lack of space to be able to educate our students.”

Stierman said while that message may be broadly understood within the school district communities, that message is not getting through to the politicians in Victoria.

“We are completely dependent on government and we we need them to start approving schools now to accommodate students in the future,” he said.

READ MORE: No readily available options for replacing Rutland Middle School

READ MORE: More portables, rising enrolment ongoing reality for Central Okanagan schools

The advocacy policy comes as the board has struggled in recent weeks to address student enrolment exceeding capacity at École Kelowna Secondary.

Identified capital projects for the school district include the need for Rutland Middle and Glenmore Elementary replacement schools; new secondary schools on the Westside and Glenmore along with a new Wilden elementary; and school additions for École Dr. Knox Middle and Constable Neil Bruce Middle.

Kevin Kaardal, school district superintendent/CEO, noted the ministry of education has funded two new Central Okanagan middle schools in the past five years, but approvals for additional school needs “are not coming fast enough” to keep up with the population growth.

“It is not that we are not grateful for what capital funding has been approved, but the reality is setting in we could face taking up sports field space to put up portables and there is no guarantee civic governments would allow bylaw variances for us to do that,” Kaardal said.

Susan Bauhart, president of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association, said while she understands the school needs in the Central Okanagan, she worries there is only so much money to go round to meet the capital funding needs of all B.C. school districts.

“It was the NDP’s mandate when they were elected to eliminate all school portables, but now that they have taken over they see the needs across the province as huge and there are only so many dollars that can go to education,” Bauhart said.

Bauhart said she is also “tremendously concerned” increased capital spending will come at the expense of cutting existing school operational costs, which impacts programs needed for students.

To that point, trustee Chantelle Desrosiers responded that each portable required absorbs a $250,00o cost to the school district budget, money that could otherwise be spent on student programs if the portables were not needed.

“So you can see how it is a bit of a double-edged sword,” she noted.

Speaking to the increase of social media awareness, trustee Norah Bowman felt there is a greater residual impact if parents and stakeholders write letters to their MLAs or to the provincial government rather than relying on social media vehicles such as Twitter or emails.

“Letter writing campaigns have a greater impact and show community support for our needs in a way that can’t easily be ignored,” Bowman said.

“A volume of letters sent to government tell them we watch, we vote and the wider community is paying attention to this.”

More specific advocacy strategies will be addressed by the board of education as required with the overall strategy to be reviewed by trustees at the first September meeting each year.

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