Confirming a decision to greenlight a new secondary school for the Westside should have been a happy occasion for Central Okanagan Public Schools board of education trustees on Wednesday night.
But instead, school trustees expressed frustration about being backed into a decision to repurpose the École George Pringle Elementary school as the site for the new high school, dismayed by the disruption the move will cause for current English and French Immersion students now at that school and how past board decisions have forced their hand.
“I believe creating a new secondary school should be one of those happy days, but instead, I feel angry, frustrated, disappointed, and really can’t believe we are in this spot,” said Chantelle Desrosiers, the West Kelowna school trustee.
“This is the last place I wanted to go, the last thing I wanted to do, and it is so sad previous school boards made a decision a long time ago to get rid of the land we so desperately need now for new schools.”
Desrosiers was referring to a decision nearly 20 years ago to then repurpose George Pringle from a secondary to elementary school, a controversial decision at the time.
“If George Pringle had been left a secondary school site, we’d all be in a better space right now,” she said.
The trustee’s frustration centres around the student impact of the new secondary school site selection: English students at Pringle will be moved to an upgraded Webber Road Elementary, currently being used as a community centre for youth programs; while French Immersion students face two options – all be shuttled off together to Glenrosa Elementary or split up between Glenrosa and Hudson Road schools.
Board chair Moyra Baxter said all possible land acquisition options for a new secondary school were exhausted, but to meet all the prerequisites for a secondary school came down to only one available site.
Similar to the predicament facing a lack of land in Rutland for a replacement middle school, urban growth has absorbed West Kelowna’s available land, the restrictions imposed by city land within the Agricultural Land Reserve, and the Webber road site in part currently categorized as an Indigenous archaeological preservation site.
To not move forward at this time left the school board facing further delays in funding for the new school by the ministry of education and Mount Boucherie Secondary School (MBSS) unable to handle the student enrolment demands by 2029.
Baxter said she was “utterly ashamed” at the board’s decision in years past to change the status of George Pringle as a secondary school, something she fought against as a trustee at that time.
She said back then, the idea of not being able to find another school site was not a serious concern and has left MBSS in its current predicament of being overcrowded and having to add portables now on a yearly basis along with potentially absorbing Westside French Immersion students facing transfer out of overcrowded École Kelowna Secondary.
“At the end of the day, the board made a decision. But I told you so; I had to say that,” she said in revisiting the frustration she felt then.
“I can say categorically no other school district did the drastic things we did, selling school properties to gain a million dollars here and a million dollars there. It costs $250,000 today to put up each new portable at our schools so that million dollars doesn’t go very far anymore.”
Trustee Norah Bowman said she understood the frustration of affected parents who this week only publicly learned of the George Pringle option three days before Wednesday’s board meeting.
Bowman said because land deals have to be discussed and negotiated in-camera, it was not as public a process as the trustees would have preferred.
“None of us take this decision lightly and we are unified in looking out for the well-being of the students who will be impacted,” she said.
Trustee Lee-Ann Tiede added her support for Bowman’s comments, saying: “I do agree we all take this very seriously and this is not an easy decision, but it is one we do have to make.”
With the board approving the George Pringle repurposing option, a consultation process will begin this September to seek public input on student relocation solutions, school catchment and transportation issues, with the final decision to be adopted next spring for implementation in September 2022.