Alina Stevens has lived her whole life in Rossland.
For 12 years she has played and gone to school in the city with the same group of around 40 young people.
But on Tuesday night the Grade 7 student was adorned in a yellow T-shirt—I (love) RSS emblazoned across her chest—fighting to let her voice be heard as one of the people most affected by the threat of the closure of her school.
It was a public forum leading up to the possible closure of either Rossland Secondary School (RSS) or MacLean Elementary School by School District 20, a cost cutting measure as the board of trustees for SD20 grappled with a $1.75 million funding shortfall over the next three years.
But for Stevens and over 500 other Rosslanders who turned up in the RSS gymnasium for the three-and-a-half hour forum hosted by the board, they gave their impassioned views on why the financial savings weren’t worth the human cost of losing a school or grades in the community.
“I think RSS is the centre of our community. A lot of the things that happen here contribute a lot to our community,” she said. “I think closing it would be really bad because a lot of things here contribute greatly to everybody.”
The district used a structured evening, complete with a facilitator, a view of the financial state of the district and an interactive format where people were given the opportunity to provide feedback. The end of the meeting opened the floor to record input and for the board to respond, as well as for people to ask questions.
Many people took issue with the fact the board had only presented three options for the schools in Rossland and they all ended in the closure of one facility—with most people taking particular exception to the closure of RSS.
At one point in the meeting, one man asked people in the gym to stand up if they agreed they would take their kids out of the school district if RSS were to close, and instead home school, move away or put their kids in school in another district.
After 200 people stood up the man told the board closing RSS would take over $1 million straight out of their budget.
“It’s a huge, huge economic cost to the school district if RSS is closed. So that’s what you really need to focus on is losing that revenue,” he said.
Another man suggested that 90 per cent of parents would consider moving out of the district, home schooling or attend other school districts.
“The difficult thing is to guess what percentage of people will not (enrol their children),” said SD20 board chair Darrell Ganzert.
It is difficult to put a number on that, one man agreed, but to not consider the likelihood would be foolish. The options presented by the board on cost savings did not consider the possibilities of people going elsewhere.
“Fair enough,” Ganzert replied. “A series of scenarios might be required. Those messages have been received loud and clear.”
What was also received loud and clear was a motion passed by Rossland city council one day before the forum. Council voted unanimously to have its staff enter into a conversation and discussion with School District 20 staff, councillor Jill Spearn told the board.
“And, as a city, we are prepared to act proactively … and try and come to some solutions, be it financially, be it whatever that may be with regards to this facility but to keep K to 12 in Rossland,” she said. “I hope the school district is going to take us up on that and we’ll find some answers to what we all know we need to do and that is to keep K to 12.”
Ganzert said he had spoken to Rossland Mayor Greg Granstrom before the meeting and indicated to him there was a very narrow window of opportunity to get a deal done.
“The school district is more than willing to meet … and it is one of our highest priorities,” he said.
The city and district staff will be meeting in the next few days, Ganzert said.
“If those talks are successful, the situation will change dramatically for the school board,” he added.
The conversation would be around dollars and what would it take, potentially, for the city to enter into some kind of partnership with the school board. Spearn said Rossland has a mandate to keep all grades in Rossland and was optimistic kindergarten to Grade 12 would be retained in the city.
“The value of this building to the community is infinite. There is no number you can even put on that,” she said. “We will figure this out. One way or another this community does intend to have K-12 in Rossland, however we need to go about that.”
But the overall financial picture for the district is bleak, painted by SD20 superintendent of schools Greg Luterbach. He said the $36 million budget the district deals with will be falling short of the mark in the next three years.
The district will have to deal with a $750,000 reduction in funding anticipated for 2013/14, and an expected $500,000 in 2014/15 and again in 2015/16.
“We know enrolment drives revenue, unfortunately, we know for the next three years we are in the hole,” he said.
The shortfall figures could worsen, he added, if any labour settlements are not fully funded by the government.
But as one lady said, who has been standing up since 1974 when threats of school closures in Rossland first started happening, it doesn’t come down to dollars when deciding to keep all of the grades from kindergarten to Grade 12 in Rossland.
“We’re asking you to do the right thing. We’re asking you to think outside of your three scenarios. To take into consideration all of these things we have been telling you,” she said.
“And it’s time to tell the government we’re not going to put up with this anymore. And you are the people who can set that tone. Do what’s right.”
The school district as a whole has been dropping in enrolment since the mid 1990s, from nearly 6,000 students to around 3,900.
Although birth rates are up, the projected increase won’t achieve the numbers from the 1990s.
“The good news is it’s rising, the bad news is it won’t be anywhere near the numbers from the 1990s,” said Luterbach.
The problem that has arisen is the district is getting the same amount of revenue to work with, but the district is facing cost pressures of labour settlements, utility increases, benefit costs, sick leave usage and mandated programming.
The district spends 88 per cent of its funds on staff which only leaves 12 per cent (about $4 million) to pay for every thing else, including supplies, equipment, utilities, professional development, insurance, phones, gasoline.