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LONDON, UK—As British Columbia begins to contemplate the effects of a $6-billion Olympic spending spree, 14 schools have been slated to close this year in the Prince George School District, situated in the Central Interior of the province. In January, hundreds of residents gathered to hear the Board of Education announce the planned closures, as well as increased class sizes, which trustees say will be necessary to close a gaping $7-million budget deficit in the district. The blow comes at a time when local communities are already reeling from 15 school closures since 2002. Residents of BC's Central Interior continue to grapple with serious economic problems, including an unemployment rate of nearly 13 per cent in the city of Prince George.
Widespread opposition has taken hold among local teachers, administrators, parents and residents, who fear for the fate of their schools and communities. “It's unprecedented when you have the BC School Trustees Association, the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, BC CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees], as well as the BCTF [Teachers’ Federation], all submitting a joint letter to the Minister,” said Don Sabo, Chairperson of the Prince George and District Parent Advisory Council. “It's pretty big stuff that's happening here.”
Hundreds of parents and community members have flocked to public meetings held at each school slated for closure and late last month dozens braved the cold outside school district offices to demonstrate against the cuts. Another demonstration in opposition to the Olympics greeted the torch relay with placards bearing slogans such as "$6 billion could fund social housing, healthcare and education.”
The BC Government has responded to the criticism of the planned school closures by denying its own culpability and faulting declines in student enrolment.
Officials have suggested that the government, despite its funding responsibilities, cannot be held responsible for school closures. “I would urge people to present their concerns to the locally elected school board,” MLA Pat Bell told the Prince George Free Press, "because that’s where school closure decisions are made.”
Local stakeholders are unconvinced, however, not least because the provincial government is the sole funder of school districts in BC, which are prohibited by law from running deficits. “School boards are put in a very unfortunate situation,” said Matt Pearce, Vice-President of the Prince George and District Teachers’ Association. “They get the unenviable task of making the cuts and they don't control the revenue.”
“I think a lot of the blame, and rightly so, has been directed at the provincial government, particularly with the [cost] downloads they’ve made, often with little or no notice to school boards.”
“Downloads” refer to new responsibilities and expenses shifted to a lower level of government without accompanying funding to meet the costs.
An abrupt shift in the funding formula for schools brought mass closures to the district in 2002 and 2003. Many believe that the model fails to properly account for the extra costs of operating schools in northern and rural areas. A recent school district report noted: “The Ministry of Education changed its method of funding school districts from one that recognized a variety of unique factors to one where the prime driver for funding became simply the number of students enrolled.”
For their parts, the Education Minister and local MLAs have instead suggested that falling enrolment, not funding shortfalls, are behind the closures. The school district "lost nearly 4,500 students in the last 10 years," Prince George MLA Shirley Bond explained in a local newspaper.
However, community members argue that the 25 per cent drop since 2001 has already been met with 15 school closures. The 14 more slated to be shuttered this year would bring the total closures to nearly half of the schools in the district in just eight years, a toll obviously disproportionate to the enrolment decline, Don Sabo notes.
As well as the unfavourable funding formula already in place, the district faces unfunded new costs and programs downloaded by the provincial government this year. These include cuts to an annual capital and maintenance costs grant, an unfunded kindergarten program, hikes to provincial health premium for employees and non-rebated costs of BC's new Harmonized Sales Tax and carbon tax.
Perhaps the greatest concern is reserved for the fate of the seven rural schools slated to close. "Because they are small communities, when you shut down the school, you're shutting down the community," Sabo said. "It's a complete disruption of the social fabric."
The closures would also mean up to three or even four hours a day spent on the bus for many kids. Teachers and parents alike are concerned about the long rides and the time that commuting children will lose, including missed chances to participate in extracurricular activities.
Their concerns are corroborated by researchers like Mount Allison University Professor Michael Fox, whose study of rural communities in Quebec found that "[kids] with large average times on a bus report lower grades and poorer levels of fitness, fewer social activities and poor study habits."
For many, it is difficult to understand why school closures and larger class sizes to save a few million dollars are considered a belt-tightening necessity, while billions are readily spent on the Olympics, along with a $500-million new roof for BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. "Bills are coming in for the Olympics and [the provincial government has] to find money to pay for it from somewhere," Sabo said. "They're taking it from our kids' education and our kids' future."
For local community activist and columnist Peter Ewart, all of this raises a broader set of questions about the economy and government policy in the region. "First of all, talk about declining enrolment begs the question: why is this taking place? A big contributor has been the damage done by job cuts and mill closures in the forest industry," which, in turn, forces families to relocate.
"People have been saying for years that there needs to be a program to diversify forestry and other resource industries in the Interior of BC. Government should be putting demands on companies, for example by requiring that resources be processed in the province and near the communities they are extracted from."
"In other words," Ewart added, "we should be adding value to our own natural resources, thus creating jobs and sustaining communities."
As the Olympics draw to a close, not only parents and students, but whole neighbourhoods and communities in this region are waiting anxiously for the final budget numbers to be released from BC's Ministry of Education in mid-March; the budget will finalize the school district's deficit level and just how many more schools will be forced shut this year.
Alex Hemingway is a UK-based graduate student from Prince George, BC. He is currently studying Social Policy and Planning at the London School of Economics, where he also received a master's degree in Global Politics.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.