When the smoke cleared in council chambers Monday night the motion to ante up taxpayers’ money in a bid to keep kindergarten to Grade 12 education in Rossland was still standing.
A 90-minute debate, emotional at times, raged across the floor in council, with a narrow vote—four-to-three—ultimately passing the motion for the City to offer a grant-in-aid of $140,000 per year for three years to School District 20 (Kootenay Columbia), with the condition kindergarten to Grade 12 grades remain in Rossland for the school years of 2013-2018.
Councillor Jill Spearn spoke at length to introduce the motion—in front of a packed council chambers of 20 people—reading from her pages of notes on the merit of keeping all 13 grades in the Golden City in an attempt to sway the majority of council in favour of approving the motion.
But it was a late amendment to the motion, after over one hour of discussion, that courted the majority of council’s approval.
The amendment by councillor Kathy Wallace—that if the grant-in-aid was accepted by SD20 a referendum would be held on the issue of raising taxes —quelled the fears of some councillors about community-wide acceptance.
“I will say it again, this is not our responsibility … ” Mayor Greg Granstrom began.
“But sustainability is,” interjected Spearn, pounding the table.
“When you speak to sustainability, is $140,000 sustainable when you have to raise taxes? What is sustainable?” he replied.
Earlier in the debate, councillor Cary Fisher said the real balancing act for council would be to counteract the expected rise in taxes from all levels of government.
“Down the road everything is going up,” he said, “and the town can’t support it. It’s not sustainable for the town to keep adding things on.
He called for other things in the City budget to be cut to keep the balance for the city’s taxpayers.
The amendment was passed four to three, with councillors Kathy Wallace, Moore, Jody Blomme and Tim Thatcher, as well as Granstrom, in favour. Later in the evening, Wallace, Moore, Spearn and Fisher carried the main motion.
After the meeting, Neighbourhood of Learning (NOL) committee chair Aerin Guy—the group working to keep all grades in the city—said she was glad the debate took place, and that council does have its ear to the ground of the community.
“But this let’s us move forward with the negotiations with the school district,” she said. “They had to put the pieces of the puzzle in place for this to take place.”
An overwhelming majority of Rosslanders were found to be in favour of an increase in taxation to support the continuation of kindergarten to Grade 12 education in the Golden City, after a week-long, city-wide poll was conducted by the NOL committee.
The results of the poll were delivered two weeks ago to Rossland City council and it was revealed that 60 per cent of the respondents supported a tax increase if it meant grades 10-12 would be kept in the community.
Back and forth
On Feb. 25 the SD20 board of trustees voted in favour of closing MacLean Elementary School in the city, moving the grades to Rossland Secondary School (RSS), and lopping off the top three senior grades (grades 10-12) and moving them down the hill to Trail’s J.L. Crowe Secondary School.
The decision lit a fire under City council to come up with a financial offer to the school district to keep three senior grades in RSS until a more permanent solution could be found.
But Spearn said the offer was about more than taxpayer dollars. She argued repeatedly that the motion would only serve to be a jumping off point for negotiations with the school district, and did not commit the city residents to a tax hike of around $55 (average).
Moore was interested in how a deal with SD20 could buy the community some time to “think outside of the box” on a permanent idea to keep the grades in the city.
“I’m not willing to do this in perpetuity. Absolutely not. It is not the business of the taxpayers to fund education. That’s a provincial mandate and it should come from those taxes,” she said.
Granstrom iterated repeatedly the error in council accepting the mantle of the shortfall.
“To all of a sudden say that this council is going to take responsibility for the shortfall in funding by the provincial government and put that load on our taxpayers, quite frankly, to me is making a statement that we … are willing to accept the download from the provincial government to our taxpayers with no guarantee, with no end goal in sight other than … the statement that we are bridge financing for a few years.”
Thatcher spoke against the motion, even though he grew up in Rossland and his children graduated from the city’s schools.
“I’ve known people in Rossland who moved out of town because of the taxes. And, with the school situation, people are going to leave town and it’s going to be hard to attract new families. So it’s really, which way do we go,” he said.
He also asked for something to be cut in other areas of the City’s budget.
The issue of keeping the three senior high school grades in Rossland isn’t just about money, said SD20 board chair Darrell Ganzert.
Even though the district will save up to $145,000 per year with moving the three grades to Trail’s J.L. Crowe Secondary School, and it could be revenue neutral with a deal in hand from the City, Ganzert said the money the City could offer would “be a huge factor for some trustees to consider,” but it won’t be a done deal to keep the grades in the city.
“(Trustees) will consider the educational offerings that are available in a K-12 situation in Rossland,” he said. “Although it may impact some people’s decision if there is money made available by the city, it just simply won’t be the money, I don’t suspect.”
He pointed to the resources RSS may lack in the new configuration, compared to what students could access at J.L. Crowe if they are sent down the hill.
Granstrom had asked Spearn—council’s liaison with the Neighbourhood of Learning committee—about the probability of the SD20 board accepting the proposal as it was written.
Spearn said she had asked Ganzert about the possibility of having conversation with the City regarding partnerships.
“And his answer, and to my eyes, he said ‘Yes we are,’” she told council. “And have we gone to them and had any conversation with them around partnerships other than at a very low level? No. So I don’t know what the probability is but you have to start somewhere.”
Granstrom said he had heard there was a very strong possibility the deal from the City would not be passed by the SD20 board.
“So if that is not going to be accepted, why would we do this?” he asked.
Spearn said the motion allows the City to enter into negotiations, and where it goes from there is unknown.
Granstrom said in his conversations with Ganzert, any offer from the City would not guarantee anything beyond the current school year.
“There is not a way they can guarantee anything past that school year,” he said, pointing to an increase in school wages throwing the numbers out.