Echo article by Mary Lee, January 22

Echo - MAry Lee article Screenshot Jan 22

“If the intent of the statutory closure process was to create enough shock and awe to force citizens to engage, look and somewhere in the process a better solution can be found, sick
then the objective was achieved”. 

Comox Valley Echo, Jan. 22, 2016  p. 7
article by Mary Lee

The fate of Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary is nearing a conclusion with the decision whether to act on a proposed recommendation to close the school resting in the hands of the acting school district superintendent Tom Demeo.

 A community fighting to keep Puntledge presented their final argument January 6 at the second last meeting for the Consolidation Working Committee co-chaired by School District 71 staffers Allan Douglas and Esther Shatz.

The Puntledge Community argues the elementary school is one of a kind, an example of a harmonious education with an environment that fosters stewardship with nature and enriches the learning experience. Situated in a forested setting adjacent Morrison Creek, students travel to and from school safely away from a busy intersection buffered by a community of homes.

 These arguments are qualitative as it is often difficult to put a quantitative value on its worth. And the reality is the final decision all comes down to the numbers.

 SD71 maintains that closing Puntledge and converting Lake Trail Middle School into an elementary school will yield an operating budget savings of $594,800 and a capital budget savings of $122,500. 

The savings, however, need to be looked at in context. Numbers are a persuasive piece of evidence but, like words, can be ambiguous and need explaining.

 Savings will be offset by capital expenditures to modify Lake Trail, forecasted between $114,00 and $625,000.  Labour charges to convert the middle school are estimated at $100,000. Deferred maintenance cost for Lake Trail is estimated at $215,000. And there is the potential cost to move three modules from Puntledge to the overcrowded Arden Elementary valued at $180,000.

 When numbers are presented in this manner, the situation appears far different. Not only will the realized saving in the first year potentially be significantly reduced, it might cost the school district in the end to carry out this proposal.

 The Puntledge community understand their strength lies in numbers. Qualitative numbers that demonstrate the same saving could be realized with another viable option.

 Led by Katherine Tinmouth, the committee researched alternative options, crunched numbers with the each including the two already on the table – closure or no closure – and conducted a detailed cost-benefit analysis all in effort to save their school while helping the school district render a decision that best meets their financial objectives.

 Russell Horswill explains that this is exactly what the Board was hoping the public process would result in and that no option has been predetermined as a solution.

 The consultation process, which concluded Wednesday with a review of Douglas’ and Shatz’ draft report was designed all along to solicit new ideas and gather input and critical information to help shape SD71’s decision.

The four options under consideration include leaving well enough alone. In other words, discard the Long Range Facility Plan’s recommendations and do nothing. The second option is to follow through with the recommended proposal of closing the elementary school and moving it into Lake Trail that calls for substantial reconfiguration. Third option is to close Lake Trail Middle School rather than Puntledge.  Lastly, keep Puntledge and reorganize and reprogram Lake Trail to maximize the use of the resources now available.  Specifically, move the alternative programs of NIDES and FAE from Tsolum into the middle school facility.

The latter option is a radical option never considered in the long range plan, nor by SD71 staff or trustees. Still, it’s not at all unrealistic. The realized gains could results in greater enrolment into the alternative education program by the mere fact that the school is now within reach of the greater Comox Valley community including Cumberland.

 But that’s a qualitative measure, an assumption. Nevertheless, an important component of critical thinking in the process of decision-making is the art of bringing what is subconscious into the conscious.  In other words, bringing another point of view forward.

 One shared and well understood point of view is that Lake Trail is currently operating inefficiently and under capacity and offers more potential than what is being realized. With a pending seismic upgrade on the horizon, Lake Trail becomes a valuable commodity for future use.

 To do so, Horswill explains, requires a statutory school closure process of Lake Trail similar to the Puntledge process. 

Douglas and Shatz’ draft report acknowledges, however, that although difficult, it is possible to conduct a school closure process on Lake Trail School in time for the start of the 2016-17 school year and, overall, West Courtenay school utilization would be similar, resulting in operational efficiencies and operating budget savings.

 Also shared is the viewpoint that doing nothing will not improve the financial situation the school district is currently in. SD71 projects a budget shortfall for 2016 – 17 of $2.2 M. The Ministry of Education’s policy is that all provincial school districts are required to conduct long range facility planning as part of their regular capital plan development for the next five years.

 The budgetary process will be underway for district trustees in the spring, likely influenced greatly by the outcome of this current process.

 If the intent of the statutory school closure process was to create enough shock and awe to force citizens to engage and somewhere in the process a better solution will be found, then the objective was achieved. 

 It’s a number game and strength is in numbers.  Acting Superintendent Demeo will present a final report based on findings in the Consolidated Working Group’s report to the Board Trustees for the February Regular School District meeting.  A public hearing will be held March 8 to allow all members of the public, not just a select committee, to speak.

 The fate of Puntledge will then go before judge and jury, the Board Trustees who must make the hard, un-biased final decision, albeit one that will likely be predetermined by numbers.