Transcript: The Vote on Puntledge Closure

coleman votes


For the record, pills the Trustees’ remarks on the Puntledge closure from the final vote March 15th, 2016.  After 5 months, we finally got to hear what they were thinking.  This is worth a review: it gives insights into how we can work together the rest of the term.

Until the Chair made his comments, the vote looked like at least 4-3 and Puntledge was dead.  But the penny dropped when Weber took an economic stand against privatization, and within a few minutes it flipped to 6-1 and a win for Puntledge, with Coleman the lone vote.

What happened?  Why did certain Trustees turn their minds around?  Were they influenced by the consultation, the Town Hall, or any aspect of the Keep Puntledge campaign?  Was it pressure from the media, the unanimous letter from the City, the kids holding signs up in the room?  Was it just because of the Chair? Based on this transcript, we can only guess at the Board’s motives.

The next Board meeting is April 26.  Please come.

Transcript – The Vote on Puntledge Closure
SD71 Board meeting, March 15th, 2016

(The room is at capacity, standing-room only. There is a phalanx of several large media cameras.  Parents and children are holding up signs.  Others are crammed in the foyer, while their kids do colouring activities on the floor.  The air hangs heavy with anticipation. The vote on Puntledge comes about 30 minutes into the meeting.)

Acting Supt. Demeo:  Recommendation number Three…

Trustee Boldt (jumping in):  I’d like to move that Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary School remain open, and that the Board direct Senior Administration to undertake a detailed review with the community of educational services in West Courtenay, and how to maximize the use of school facilities in West Courtenay – Debbie has a copy of the motion.

Chair Weber:  Thank you for that.  Can I have a comment on the motion that’s already on the table right now?

Trustee Caton:  You know what – I’m going to move to start the conversation. I move the recommendation. Start the conversation.

Chair Weber:  Can I have a seconder?  (Trustee Coleman.)

Caton:  So, to the recommendation on the table here.  (strongly)  We are here not because we want to be here.  No Trustee on this board wants to sit here and have a conversation about closing a school.  The reason we are here (tearing up) – I’m getting emotional about this one here – is that since 2008, our District has lost 1,000 students. We have cut eight million dollars from our budget.  We’re looking at $2.5 million dollars next year, $2.5 million the year after that.  My role as a trustee is to provide educational services for 7,000 students from K to 12 and make sure that every single student in this district has the same opportunities, and I cannot do that with the funding formula this government has put upon us.

We’re here tonight because the government has chosen us to go down this route.  The only way school districts now can manage their budgets is by closing schools. The Recommendation came to the Board to look at Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary.  We’ve had the consultations, we’ve had the conversations with our communities.  We’ve heard the pros, we’ve heard the cons.  We’ve heard that moving it up the hill to a better school works, leaving it  where it is works.  We’ve heard the seismic upgrading at Lake Trail is an issue, we’ve heard other issues at Puntledge.  My role as a trustee is to ensure my decision here affects every student in the District.  I’ve looked at everything, and I’ve read every single email that I’ve gotten, I’ve read every single report that I have, and I do have some concerns…I do have concerns regarding Lake Trail – the location of Lake Trail, the parking lot at Lake Trail – and that 60% of that school is seismically unsafe for elementary students – I do have that concern. At the end of the day, can you honestly say: do I support this recommendation?  And at this point in time I have to say, I’m on the fence, and I don’t know if I can support this recommendation as it is presented.  And that’s the end of my conversation.

(audience: some applause)

Weber:  Trustee Coleman?

Coleman:  Well I, you know I look at this primarily, of course, from the point of view of finance.  And it seems to me we really only have two choices.  We either close a school, and the one under consideration is Puntledge – or we lose another 8 or 10 teaching positions this year. And really, I see no alternative to that.  And the damage done by what cuts we’ve made in this District over the past four years has been felt right across the District – I’m not willing to vote for more teacher cuts, and yet that’s the only option I see on the table.  So I’m forced to vote for the closure. I’m bound to support the motion.

Weber:  Thank you – Trustee McDonnell.

McDonnell:  It’s interesting to hear that, because of course we’re under the pressure, and of course none of us want to do this or even consider it.  But the good thing about it is, we’re looking at choosing to close – we’re considering closing a school, so we do have a choice as to whether it’s Ecole Puntledge Park.  And I can understand completely when the proposal was first thought of, that we were looking at eliminating junior secondary, principal, staff, that could be accommodated in another junior secondary school, and that did have low capacity in itself.  And I can understand that somebody said, well you know, it’s a better school, it’s a bigger school than Puntledge Park – so let’s move them up there, it’ll be great.  Well, it turns out in the course of this process – and you know that I was skeptical at the start, because I know both those schools really, really well.  I know what a gem it is at Puntledge Elementary, I know it’s really not the same walking down the field to the stream than being there and looking at it and having that nature around.  And I know what a school Lake Trail is in terms of its resources, the assets that it has – what it can be for our district as a 21st century springboard, and what it is for that community. And that community, both the schools impacted, the entire West side, are vulnerable.  There’s an amazing growth of parents moving there on purpose, who are well-educated, skilled, and have super jobs, and they’ve chosen that area.  But there are also lots of families who are really struggling, and don’t have vehicles, and those schools are lifelines because of what they offer.  

So, when I look at this situation I say, well, what did we hear?  The original one was, we’re going to keep all that stuff in Lake Trail,  we’re going to keep the shops and art rooms.  Now it turns out the capacity doesn’t let us have that room. We have to turn many good classrooms, many community assets both for the kids and for the community at large, we have to get rid of them.  We have to create classrooms in rooms that don’t even have windows, they don’t see the outside.  Now, when we did a conversion of Queneesh, we were able to convert that school and still keep multi-purpose rooms for general use.  Every classroom in that school has windows.  It’s not comparable to say that we can convert a junior high, a middle school, we’ve done it before – they’re not the same.  So then we find out about the relative seismic risk – for me that’s just a non-starter.  I’m not happy there’s a seismic risk at Lake Trail, but it’s more OK for that population than it is for our 480 very small children.  So I’m not happy about it, but I still can make that rationale.  We find out about the traffic – and I had not thought about that.  But the traffic numbers are compelling.  It is way more congested.  And that’s not just a twenty minute traffic problem, that’s actually air quality issues.  Kids that are in schools that are on busy roads – and it is – really do suffer in their health. 

So then you look at a number of other things.  Losing the access to the pre-school rooms and Aboriginal HeadStart.  It’s not our main mandate, that’s for sure – but if we have the room, which we do at Puntledge, and we can make life easy for parents that supports those kids, we should do it.  We should not just say, oh, they’ll go somewhere else.  As you know, because Arden is crowded, they are running an after-school care at Lake Trail.  And it’s quite hard to get them down, it’s quite a thing of kids coming in at 3 o’clock.  But if we put Puntledge in there and there is no room for those functions, Arden is shut, Puntledge is shut – where are those 90 kids going to go?  We have a chance to just leave Puntledge where it is.  And we heard from parents, of course we know it’s the teachers, and they create magic there, and they will do the same in Lake Trail, but beyond that – the two schools as elementaries are not comparable.  We will end up, you could call it, turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear.  The reverse, really.  We have this magic thing.  I admit, maintenance issues, right, we know that, that’s fine.  You can address those and improve the value of Puntledge, and really reflect… that school’s priceless, it really is priceless.  

(loud applause)

McDonnell:  And the other piece is, if we vote to leave that school there, we still do have to find the savings.  And so we have a couple of options.  We could immediately start a closure process on Lake Trail, which is really what we’re talking about closing.  We could do that, and we have time to do it, and if anything it deserves to have a focus on it.  And I’ll tell you, when we look at it we’ll actually see what it offers as an asset, and realize that doing a conversion, and stripping out all of those special things – we end up with a jerry-rigged elementary school, instead of this priceless gem, that anybody would want to have in their school district.  We end up with this jerry-rigged elementary school that’s adequate, it’ll work, of course it’ll work, it’s adequate – but we also lose this amazing junior school, which might continue to have local kids in, I think there’s rationale for that – or it could become a learning centre, or we could move the school board offices in with, or we could move student services in… the City might buy it for a rec centre.  We partner with all these groups – there are so many opportunities for that school, that save those operating costs, that spend our capital dollars improving a school rather than wrecking a school.  


McDonnell:  We really end up with a win.  and I get it – it looked like a good idea.  And then you go, well, maybe not – so what’s plan B?  Plan B is in front of us.  The thing I really feel concerned about is that we represent the public interest, and both of those schools are pretty amazing assets.  When we’ve heard from the public how important it is to them as an elementary that has certain features:  the nature, the special needs way they work, the childcare spaces, the quiet access to the playground, the ability to close off and do Whacky Wheely, you couldn’t do that at Lake Trail – the play space, which is pretty diverse, and the stream, it’s not a walk-to but it’s right there.  So when we hear about what the public want, overwhelmingly – we don’t have social license to do anything.  When there is an option, the social license we have is to keep that school open.  When we were considering closing Tsolum and Union Bay, the savings came from closing those schools.  Not from moving those kids somewhere else.  When we had Cape Lazo and Brooklyn, and there was a choice offered,  and surprisingly the parents wanted the old Brooklyn – in the end, we didn’t do it.  That was their choice.  Certain things are more important than a big gym.  And when you look at it, at the end of the consultation, after all the things that were offered like the art room and the foods room and the bigger this and that – the only thing that you end up with is a bigger gym, there is not enough space for the school, you lose the connection to nature, you’re in a congested and unhealthy site, and you irrevocably destroy Lake Trail’s capacity to do other functions for us. 

So I find it kind of ironic when we think we might renovate Lake Trail and take the adult washrooms out and put little kid washrooms in, and then renovate Puntledge for School Board offices and take the little kid washrooms out and put adult washrooms in.

(loud laughter, cheers, applause)

McDonnell:  The two schools are designed to meet certain needs, they can continue to meet those needs, the savings are there if we address the issues of Lake Trail, on its own.  Thank you Tom.

Weber:  Thank you.


Weber:  Trustee Boldt.

Boldt:  Trustee Sheila made more eloquent comments that I could make but in her comments there a lot of “ors” – we could do this, or we could do that – and those are what concern me.  The City Council last night voted to support keeping Puntledge open, they are in the middle of a revitalization of the downtown area, and they’re dealing with the homeless situation in the west end – I’m looking at this issue from a West Courtenay perspective, and I think we need to look at the maximization of facilities over the next 10-15 years, and I think Trustee Sheila has made some of those points.  We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 10-15 years, but it’s pretty obvious to our real estate friends that all the expansion is moving west. The east is full, and they want to revitalize the downtown core because development is going to the West.  In the future the prices are going to be cheaper than east Courtenay, so we can expect little ones to be moving into that area. And if we close Puntledge, and close Lake Trail as a middle school, we are reducing our options.  What I think we need, and in the Closure Committee report the Option #3 made it quite clear that if we take a breath, take a pause and look at some of the creative and innovative things that could happen in West Courtenay for the K-12 and K-7 programs we would go farther.  I think what we’re doing right now by closing this school, two schools we’re closing, we’re not just closing one, we’re closing two schools – we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face and I cannot support the motion.

(loud applause)

Weber:  Trustee Hargreaves or Brown?

Trustee Brown:  This is a terribly difficult situation.  I get that you guys are really attached to your school; I would be too, it’s in a beautiful location – but we need to look at the long-term health of the District – and the Lake Trail facility is a better facility –

(audience, much yelling “No!”)

Brown: Are we really going to have a debate?  

Weber (drily): We’re not debating – just listen please, thank you –

Brown:  We’ve listened to everything you’ve said, we’ve read every email, we’ve read every letter, we’ve listened to your comments at the hearing – 

Weber:  Trustee Brown, talk to the Trustees, you’re not engaging…

Brown:  I believe Lake Trail is the better school; I believe if we’re going to invest money in making a school better, then we need to start with one that’s got a solid foundation… I also believe that, while there were many different proposals put forward, I couldn’t, in looking at them in detail, find one that would work, that would save us the same amount of money – Puntledge Park needs $500,000 worth of work in deferred maintenance, will the Grade Sevens fit in Puntledge Park, on top of the school that’s already there?  I think if we’re going to invest in a West Courtenay school, it’s going to be Lake Trail.

Weber: Thank you – Trustee Hargreaves.

Hargreaves:  I’ve looked at some of the background history – I found it fascinating that Lake Trail was initially built as an elementary school.  It was changed to an elementary school after, the same as we’re doing with other schools.  In the last ten years, boards in this district have closed Union Bay – a rural school.  Tsolum – a rural school.  Black Creek – a rural school.  Glacierview – east side school.  Brooklyn – east side school.  Village Park – east side school.  Comox Elementary – east side school.  These have been closed in the last ten years because of the political philosophy of this province, and the priorities of the government – that’s not changing.  And it doesn’t matter where we build out here, or where we build on the islands, or where we build anything else – as long as that political philosophy and those priorities continue to exist, there is no school in this district that is safe from being closed.  And as for cutting jobs – the only jobs that will be cut in this next round will be non-enrolment teachers.  Those are teachers that deal with our most vulnerable students.  Those are not teachers who are standing in front of a class of thirty or more, they are people that are dealing with special needs individuals in the district.   Severe behaviour problems.  Multiple handicaps.  Those are the people that we are going to be (unintelligible on tape), and those are the kids that I have to speak for. As well as all the other students.  Now, as far as Puntledge being a “gem” – I taught there for ten years.  No one is going to tell me that that building is a gem.  It is not.  And I’m sorry that you don’t realize that.  I would love to see that building get the money, I wish we had the money to go in there and redo the whole inside of it and make it into what it should be now, but at this point, it has classrooms that are used as hallways – that is not a good learning environment for anyone’s children.  And people pass through those.  And those teachers, yes they learn to get along with it, and to survive it – but it is not healthy for the learning environment of the children in those rooms.  

The other aspect, I took a tour of it, two tours, the one that was offered by the PAC and I took my own, as an alumni of Puntledge.  And the rooms that used to stink when I there still stink, if not worse now. The aspect of having the corridors blocked off, making the whole centre courtyard area like a prison – that was never there when I was there, it was open all the way around, right to the front.  Now granted, the one hallway that does exist in that school is part of the new complex that was built, that’s good.  But the rest of the building? No, it is not a gem, at all.  The location may be considered a gem, but again, I have known teachers that have had all kinds of respiratory problems because of the fog that sits down in there (crowd reacts with incredulity) almost six months of the year.  But – they can be ignored because they’re only teachers. However, in 2008, it was recommended to the Board that Puntledge Park be closed. That was deferred at that time.  It’s come back around now, we could defer it as well. But it’s only a matter of time, as long as you’ve got the same political philosophy and priorities that continue to exist.  And I haven’t seen any, anything, even talking with the MLA, he’s seen only a couple of parents come down there.  I didn’t hear of any massive letters, any massive cards going to any of them;  I didn’t see any protests down at his office – I saw them downtown, I went down and had a look at that, but I didn’t see them down at his office pounding on his door.  In fact, when I’ve talked to most people, what they’ve said is: close this, don’t close this. Let’s close Arden, let’s close Courtenay El.  Nobody, when I was talking to them, said, let’s get rid of the problem.  

Weber:  Thank you.  OK.  I have something to say.  And I actually have notes.  How close are children sitting to where I’m sitting?  Because my internal Peter Finch is going to come out.  And if you don’t know who Peter Finch is, then Google him quickly.  So I want to start by thanking senior staff for this phenomenally complex problem in providing guidance to all of us, that’s inclusive of trustees and the public, through this process.  It’s no easy task to have done, in the face of change in our senior leadership, the Superintendent and Secretary-Treasurer position, on top of all the other expectations, like your regular job that we demand of you.  I also want to thank my trustee colleagues who maintained objectivity during this process, in particular the new Trustees, Trustee Hargreaves and Trustee Brown – I appreciate that, this is a (word missing) duty, the responsibility of a Trustee through a process like this is to maintain objectivity, demonstrate objectivity through the process, and I would like to thank my colleagues Trustee Caton and Trustee Coleman for the same (words missing).  

I want to talk about what didn’t influence my decision.  What didn’t influence my decision is that my own kids attended this school.  This process has been going on for so long now, that when it started, as my trustee colleagues know, I was a reasonably happily married guy, and now a Puntledge parent is representing my wife through a divorce proceeding.  So that didn’t influence my decision either.  Nostalgia doesn’t influence my decision around this.  The reference to the crime rate in the Lake Trail area I find particularly offensive – I don’t live in the Lake Trail area, but I think if I lived in the Lake Trail area I would take huge exception with those broad stroke comments that suggest that one end of the property is a more risky neighbourhood to attend school – that is just absolute nonsense.

Seismic concerns between the schools:  I recognize that there are differentiations between, but neither school is relatively safer or unsafer than the next, in my view.  I also believe, unfortunately, in having been through a number of these, and having been part of them in the 1980’s in another province, as school closure is not a brand new issue – is that school closure is more of an issue for parents than for our children – our children are rather resilient, and their primary interest is to be with their friends and their teachers that they like.  The access to the environment is an interesting one, and I disagree – I appreciate your point, Trustee McDonnell, but slightly differ, in that the opportunities to access the environment is something that still would be available.

The other thing that didn’t influence my decision, and I sat patiently through, but man, I’ve gotta tell you how hard it was to bite my tongue at times: the conspiracy theorists I find particularly offensive, as an extremely lazy way of thinking, and I also think it’s curious that conspiracy theorists only come out when they’re worried about your view opposing theirs – they don’t think it’s conspiracy when everybody conspires to support you.  And I find that particularly offensive, and again, I’ll be careful with my language, but I’m happy to have a debate with any conspiracy theorist who thinks that the Board or any members of the Board conspired to cook the books or make a decision ahead of time – that is particularly offensive.  Notwithstanding the above, I think that the views and opinions from the community were varied and were well thought-out, and were super-appreciated.

The savings: the costs involved in upgrading Lake Trail vs. the costs involved in upgrading Puntledge – there are costs associated with that.  Recognize that the school we’re talking about, Puntledge, is at near-capacity, and is in full use.  Which differentiates it, somewhat, from schools which we’ve had to deal with in the past. The future use of the site:  there isn’t a covenant on the property, so technically, or legally, there’s really no true barrier for embarking on an alternate use of the land. We could begin a process at some future date, to subdivide the property and do whatever.  Disposing of, arguably, selling the land would be a complex process – I think Trustees are aware of that.  This is not simply a matter of hammering a For Sale sign on the front lawn and entertaining offers.  Selling the land for something for other than educational use hasn’t really been the history in this District.  So I cite Tsolum.  Now recognize that Tsolum has a covenant attached to it that the property can only be used for educational purposes, and it has been utilized in recent years as NIDES. Glacierview has been repurposed to be used by the School District.  Village Park was sold to the French school district, but is still being used for educational purposes. And Brooklyn the same – being used for educational purposes by other parties.

So should Puntledge be sold, what would its future use be?  And that’s likely for a future board to decide, because how these things tend to progress, it’s not something that we would be seized with, or seize ourselves with, over the remaining 2.5 years of our tenure.  The relocation of the Board office is highly unlikely – every school that’s been closed in the past, it’s always been: hey, let’s move the Board office there. And as much as this building needs to be vacated, and perhaps the Board office moved someplace else, it is extremely unlikely, in my view, that the future home of the Board office would be at Puntledge Park.  Repurposing for other School District 71 educational needs:  well, perhaps.  But as has been pointed out, Lake Trail, or parts of Lake Trail, could be used for that now – if in fact, that’s something that we want to do.  Subdivide the land, demolish, sell – I think that is extremely unlikely;  this isn’t a property that I envision in my lifetime, and I hope to live a few more years, that will develop condominiums, apartment buildings, even low-cost housing – I don’t think that that’s something that’s in the cards.

The most likely option – and here’s where the rub is for me – the most likely option is that, going on the pattern of history, is that SD 71 would be approached almost immediately by a third party who would say: hey!  We’ll buy that building from you and use it for educational purposes.  And I’m troubled by that – not because I have a philosophical bent against independent schools, that’s totally fine.  But I am concerned that, if that were to be the case – and granted, it would be this Board’s decision or a future Board’s decision to ignore that – but again, history suggests that Boards have to really to look at that, and entertain that, and this Board has made that decision in the past, and others as well.

So I appreciate that this is stringing together a lot of points that may in fact not be strung together, but the concern that I have, in the end, is that if we close and vacate Puntledge Park, it will become the future site and home of another educational opportunity, that would, ironically, recruit from the existing population that we have – not necessarily all from that area, but certainly from our District.  Again, that’s not my view against independent schools – but I’m loath as a Trustee of SD 71 to pave a path and lay track for other educational partners to come and use our (word obscured). So it’s on that point – and weighing the complex cost-benefits of closing Puntledge, I totally get that – it’s for that reason that I would not support the motion.

(crowd erupts into loud cheering)

Weber:  Trustee Caton is calling for the Motion…

Caton:  So I’m calling the question if all have spoken, so it’s time to call the Motion…

Weber:  Hold on – do we…

McDonnell (jumping in):  I just feel that this is such an important issue, making a big decision – it would be appreciated if we, making a sole…

Weber:  If you have new information to add… if you have the same information to say over again, then…

McDonnell:  I could speak, so much, as to those other options and questions – but I want to put it to you as Trustees and where you’re at, even though some of you have expressed concerns about the state of the building – we’re at a point… so, I’m begging all of you, to be looking for a way to say “yes” to leaving Puntledge where it is.   And it falls into that thing where, we thought it was a good idea and it turns out not to be, and the place where it balances, I share the Chair’s concerns about the devastation of seeing that in the hands of another educational institution.  But really, it’s about our leadership, right now.  We need to be positive.  We’ve talked about community engagement, and we are doing a lot of consultation, and a lot of change.  And this is the moment when we need to be courageous leaders, and we need to be visionary leaders (applause) and we need to be looking to retaining future opportunities for growth, for creative solutions to capacity, like the Lake Trail issue.

And if we vote to turn down this… this is the social license piece – we have a groundswell of people who have organized for something that’s important, and their community, and if we say no, the skepticism and discouragement will not just apply to this school – and it’s something that we don’t have to do – it’s going to apply to the whole District.  Others are going to say, why would we bother?  Why would we be engaged with them, why won’t they try something new and be flexible, because it’s not going to work.  Not only that, if we support this group, some of them may say it’s over and go away, but some of them – this amazing capacity, these talented people, will be going down to McRae’s office and supporting it, as we try to carry a message about the importance of public education.  And that positive move will be something – we heard people, we want to do something positive – yes, we’re under a lot a pressure to just cut, cut, cut, but we actually think there’s a way to invest in the best things in our school.  And that will affect all the other consultations we are doing, about the alternate week, or about the budget in general.  And we put ourselves in a way better place, if we make the right decision on this.  Thank you Tom.

Weber:  So, on the Motion before you, all those in favour –

(Trustee Coleman shoots his arm up in the air)

Weber:  And opposed –

(the Motion stands at 6-1)

Weber:  And the Motion is defeated.

(the room erupts in wild, boisterous cheering – people jump to their feet, applauding)

Weber (over crowd):  Could I see Shelley’s hand? Shelley? Could you put your hand up?  So, I want everybody to see Shelley.  Because Shelley’s going to be here next month.  And I wonder how many of you are going to be here next month to pay attention to what’s going on in the District?

Audience member (puts hand up): I’ll be here!!

Weber:  Excellent!  (banging gavel)  Ok, we have a meeting….

Caton (over crowd):  I’m wondering, if #8 is contingent on having a conversation on….the boundaries, the existing boundaries…. (drowned out)

Weber:  OK, we’ll take five minutes….