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Rural Schools Don't Die Easily

B.C. towns and villages are struggling to save their community anchors. Forest Grove elementary is one.

Scott Deveau 8 Sep
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The children of Forest Grove, a small village in B.C.'s interior, are waiting on the side of a busy lumber road this week to go to a new elementary school. Their bus stop, only a stone's throw from their old school, is built from heap of gravel dumped there last week.

At this time last year, 26 of the 81 students in the area could just walk to school. But they now face a 20-minute bus ride. For the children who live on the outskirts of town, some as young as five years old, the trip is now an hour each way on an 85-passenger bus that also takes kids to high school in nearby 100 Mile House.

The parents of Forest Grove made provincial headlines this summer following a year-end celebration at the school. A few decided on a whim not to leave the party. Their sit-in prevented the school district from removing its equipment and supplies for nearly three weeks.

"Nothing else worked," Fred Saenger, one of the protestors, said last week at the Forest Grove School Defense Committee's protest camp. "They just wouldn't listen."

Last July, the school district won an injunction to ban Forest Grove residents from the school and its grounds. Now there's a 24-hour camp in the parking lot of the community centre beside the school. The camp has a giant canvas tent, a fax machine, a bed, and is littered with legal documents and newspaper clippings. There is a solitary wood stove outside and a couple picnic tables. It's served them well for the summer, but with winter coming and the three to four feet of snow it brings, the camp can't last much longer, putting pressure on their cause.

Since the RCMP and district officials came in July, Forest Grove elementary has sat gutted of its furnace, water pump, and the district's records and possessions.

113 schools have closed

Conflicts over school closures, cutbacks and four-day school weeks have been common throughout the province in the last few years. Declining rural enrolment and provincial budget restraints have put pressure on trustees, administrators, parents and children. On Galiano Island, some high school  students will be away from home for nearly 11 hours each day when they travel to Salt Spring Island for a new four-day school week.

Other communities have simply lost their schools. One hundred and thirteen schools, the bulk of them rural, have closed across the province in the past two years.

On April 8, the school board of district 27 voted to close the Forest Grove elementary school due to a $3.3 million budget shortfall. Forest Grove was closed instead of a slightly larger school 12 km down the road in Buffalo Creek. If Forest Grove is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town, then Buffalo Creek is a town you're not even sure you're in when you're there. Buffalo Creek elementary was originally built in 1965 to handle the overflow of students from Forest Grove.

The school board said it would save $160,000 by closing Forest Grove elementary, the seventh such closure in a school district the size of New Brunswick.

What made the closure impossible to swallow for Forest Grove's parents was that, in a decision based on finances, the estimates on closing Buffalo Creek were not made public. Even after repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the parents have yet to see them. The statements were also unavailable to The Tyee at the time of publication.

Kids banned from playground

When the police came to Forest Grove to remove the school district's possessions this summer, Forest Grove's children were told by the police they could no longer to play on the school grounds "or they would be arrested," said eight-year old Justyn Antone. Yet the school's soccer fields and play equipment are all the community has. For the first time in more than 80 years, their school sits abandoned.

Forest Grove consists of a feed and lumber store, an ice-cream stand, a general store that houses a small diner, a volunteer fire hall, and a handful of buildings and houses. Its 1,800 residents work primarily in forestry, tourism and ranching. There are no sidewalks, just a shoulder that was paved two years ago so kids could walk safely to school.

In 2002, the Ministry of Education commissioned a provincial task force to find solutions to the financial problems facing rural schools. Because of decreased enrolment, rural schools, which like their urban counterparts run on a per-student funding basis, struggle with ever-dwindling budgets. Since the 2001 school year, enrolment in the province's public schools has fallen by 26,000. The majority of those losses come from rural areas; 150 came from district 27 last year.

Closures must be "last recourse"

The task force said public schools are the "heart of the community" and recommended school closures only be used as a "last recourse."

"The rural school represents more than a place for the children to be educated. In many ways, it also represents the right to preserve a rural culture and a viable economic development plan," the report said. It added that many thought their school was a "community right" that should be guaranteed, to recognize rural B.C.'s contribution to the economy.

Yet school closures continue, despite the task force's recommendations, and almost $734 million in annual provincial subsidies for rural schools (to compensate for enrolment declines, salary differentials, unique student and geographic factors, transportation and housing).

And once they're closed it's hard to get them back.

Small-town economies often pivot on one or two industries. The community of 70 Mile, down the road from Forest Grove, is an example of what happens when such industries leave.

Many 70 Mile residents packed up and moved after the local sawmill shut down, said Sheila Wyse, president of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Teacher's Association. The exodus created a sharp drop in enrolment, and 70 Mile's elementary school was the first in district 27 to close. However, when the mill reopened, no one wanted to move back because the school was gone. The community, Wyse said, is a skeleton of what it once was.

The parents of Forest Grove are quick to point out their school has not suffered from decreased enrolment. Though last year the school operated at little more than 60 per cent of its capacity (of 131 according to the defense committee and 140 according to the district), Will Van  Osch, former president of the Forest Grove Parent Advisory Council, said it turned away students because the district was unwilling to hire another teacher.

Province disclaims responsiblity

The education ministry spokesperson, Corinna Filion, says it's not the province but the local school boards that close schools. She added that the province plans to invest an additional $313 million in education during the next three years, $85 million this year alone

But increased funding comes too late for Forest Grove and school district 27, which needed to balance the shortfalls in this year's budget. "The Ministry and the Province have washed their hands of it," said Bruno Dehier, a Forest Grove parent of three.

The education ministry's task force also noted that school closures often divide communities and pit parents against their school boards and staff, something that has certainly happened in Forest Grove.

Forest Grove's former principal, Mark Wintjes, named four of the six parents, including Saenger, Van Osch and Dehier, who were involved in the occupation of the school last July. In August, they appeared in Supreme Court in Vancouver for their part in not allowing the district access to its property. They were also hung with legal and security expenses, in excess of $8,000, that resulted when the RCMP secured the school so the district could collect their belongings.

In an effort to ease the transition for the Forest Grove students this year, the district appointed Wintjes principal of Buffalo Creek. This outraged the parents named in his affidavit and others, and they now plan to home-school  their 20 children this fall.

Wintjes said he had no idea how many students from Forest Grove will attend Buffalo Creek.

Community disputes land title

The Forest Grove School Defense Committee, which was formed to raise money for the parent's legal expenses after the district obtained its injunction, is also challenging two aspects of the closure.

The committee argues that in 1949 and 1965, the two parcels of land the school sits on were each sold by private citizens to the district for $1 each, explicitly for the purpose of a school. The committee now has sworn affidavits to that effect from witnesses to the sale. The defense committee argues that as soon as the school was closed, the district violated that contract, losing its claim to the land and voiding its injunction.

The committee's second claim is that the school district violated the School Act when it changed a bylaw to close the school. The Act states three readings are necessary to change a bylaw, and there cannot be more than one reading per meeting unless there is unanimous consent of the trustees.  The defense committee claims two of the trustees objected to changing the bylaw, yet the school board held both the second and third readings required to close the school at its April 8 meeting.

They also say Forest Grove elementary made money for the district, because of the overall number of students and because its aboriginal students brought the district more than $900 each in federal grants. The committee claims those aboriginal students won't be attending Buffalo Creek. The committee also says Forest Grove is a safer building, and the local fire department wrote a letter to the trustees reiterating this.

The committee knows that several small communities have successfully opposed school closures. In fact, Forest Grove fought off a closure two years ago after it was deemed a better facility than Buffalo Creek.

Wells, a small community in Cariboo, prevented the closure of its 14-student school in 2002 by staging a hunger strike, which was joined by its mayor and Jim Sinclair, executive director of the B.C. Federation of Labour. The municipality now shares some of the administrative expenses with its school district.

However, for the community of Forest Grove, there isn't a mayor or a chamber  of commerce to support them.

And Walt Cobb, the Liberal MLA for Cariboo South, offers little comfort. "If the process was not followed, [the school board] would have to do it again, but that doesn't preclude closing the school," Cobb said.

No single 'objective reason'

The board insists it was a matter of necessity. "We needed to close one of the schools," said Wayne Rodier, chair of school district 27. He voted in favour of closing Forest Grove in a 4-2 decision, with one abstention. However, he says he can't offer the parents of Forest Grove one clear, objective reason for the closure. "There isn't one."

Rodier said the decision was based on the bigger gym at Buffalo Creek and because the building is newer. The two trustees that voted against the closure said they do not support any school closures as means to balance budgets.

Still, Will Van Osch remains confident that the provincial ministry of education cannot overlook their legal arguments. He believes they will overturn the trustee's decision, and that the school would reopen sometime this year.

"It took them a half an hour to take the furnace and the water pump out of the school," Van Osch said. "It will take them another half an hour to put it back."

Scott Deveau is a regular contributor to The Tyee who last wrote about the greening of Victoria's docklands.  [Tyee]

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