LONG TERM CHANGE--Residents from around the Columbia Valley gathered to hear the Long Term plan from the Rocky Mountain School District and its involvement for the Windermere zone.  Photo by Eric Elliott

LONG TERM CHANGE–Residents from around the Columbia Valley gathered to hear the Long Term plan from the Rocky Mountain School District and its involvement for the Windermere zone.Photo by Eric Elliott

Last week, a group of 40 concerned residents made their way to David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) to voice their questions and concerns over the Rocky Mountain School Districts new Long Term Facility Plan that was released last month.

The School Board released the long-term plan on September 15th, detailing many of the potential changes they have in mind for the various zones within the Rocky Mountain School District. On Wednesday, October 5th, members of the school board held their second of three community meetings to discuss the implications of the plan for the Windermere zone of the school district.

The reason for the creation of the long-term facility plan is that the Ministry of Education has introduced the requirement for all Districts to complete a district-wide comprehensive school district facilities plan. The plan forms the basis for all provincial capital investment decisions within each school district. Among other things, the plan analyzes education requirement trends, operating capacities, current conditions of existing facilities, community demographics and any anticipated changes in land use. Its aim is over the next decade rather than immediate short-term change.

In the Windermere zone specifically, the plan looked at the six schools to determine space availability for future students. What they found was that DTSS was well under capacity, along with Edgewater, Martin Morigeau and J. Alfred Laird Elementary. Less than a kilometre away from J.A Laird, Eileen Madson Primary School is currently 81 students over capacity, which is expected to continue until 2025.

Due to there being two spare classrooms at J.A. Laird currently, the school district identified one of the potential options to restructure these enrollments through converting both Eileen Madson and J.A Laird to kindergarten to Grade 7 schools. Currently Eileen Madson operates as a kindergarten to Grade 3 school with students then transferring to J.A. Laird for Grades 4 to 7.

Unknown to many in the Columbia Valley, Invermere formerly had two kindergarten to Grade 7 schools prior to 1980: in Invermere Elementary located at the current Sobeys and J.A. Laird. Several residents who attended those schools, or parented children who did, were in attendance on Wednesday to express their opinions.

Running those two schools side by side was a disaster, said one woman, who had two children enrolled in schools at the time. It was horrible and the best thing the school board ever did was put the two schools together into one school.

Debbie Fischer, who worked in the school system for 27 years and was enrolled at one of the elementary schools at the time, echoed her sentiment.

I remember when it was the two schools, she said. Its not healthy. It divided our community, it divided the kids, and it became very competitive in an unhealthy way. I really do believe that we would do an injustice to our community by splitting our kids in our community like that.

Chenoa Paccagnan, mother of three children within the school system, voiced her opinion on the social divide that the potential change could have on the communitys children long term.

Were a small community, she said. We only have a cohort of about 50 students in our entire community, why do we want to split them up into two K-7 schools and draw a line through the community?

I want children from across the community to grow up knowing that Athalmer is the same as CastleRock, is the same as Westside Park, is the same as Windermere. We all live in this valley together and by putting our children in separate schools, Im really worried that the differences will come out more than the positives.

One of the questions several residents had for the school board members was: if Eileen Madson needed an upgrade regardless of changing from K-3 to K-7, why not just upgrade Eileen Madson so that it was large enough to accommodate the current enrollment format and leave J.A. Laird as a Grade 4 to 7 school?

To this, Paul Carriere, superintendant of the Rocky Mountain School District, explained that the Ministry of Education administers funding for projects based on priority within a school district and that an upgrade to Eileen Madson would not be the top priority within the Rocky Mountain School District. Instead, Selkirk Secondary School in Kimberley, which was constructed in 1957, is deemed as top priority and even then, when the Minister of Education, Mike Bernier, toured the school district earlier this year, he did not see Selkirk getting funding in the near future.

Down the road we might get priorities like Eileen Madson Primary School but it will be after (the Selkirk upgrade), Mr. Carriere said. I just need everyone in the room to understand that I dont have a crystal ball and I dont know when things will happen but it looks like itll be a really long time.

In addition to restructuring the two schools in Invermere, issues such as out-of-catchment area schooling were discussed at the meeting last week. Residents were concerned that if the plan moved forward on restructuring the two schools, that programs such as J.A. Lairds hockey program would become unavailable to students who lived on the wrong side of the road and were forced to go to Eileen Madson because of space restrictions.

Mr. Carriere acknowledged this as a potential problem with the restructuring, but noted that residents would be able to file for out-of-catchment schooling the same way they can under the current system.

He also noted that this long-term facility plan is only in the draft stages and is subject to potential adjustment once consultation has taken place and the board meets to discuss the publics concerns and other problems with the first draft.

Ultimately, though, residents at the meeting urged the school board to push the Ministry of Education on adapting the way they fund school expansion projects so that Eileen Madson would be able to get the proper expansion it needs to keep the status quo.

I think thats something the board should really consider as theyre moving forward, Ms. Paccagnan said. I think were a rural community and we dont fit. I think we need to be very loud with Victoria and let them know that we dont fit in this box. Were rural. Were different.

Those interested in reading the complete long-term facility plan can do so at www.sd6.bc.ca.