By JOE FRIES
If another last-ditch effort fails tonight to save West Bench Elementary, it could turn into a windfall for the Penticton Indian Band’s school.
Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School principal Phil Rathjen said his facility, which currently has the equivalent of 90 full-time students, is in line to get four new classrooms when it reaches 100 kids.
The new space would be created by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the federal agency that funds Outma.
Rathjen said he had “a couple” of new registrations for the 2016-17 session in the run-up to the board of the Okanagan Skaha School District voting March 30 to close nearby West Bench Elementary, and going ahead with that decision could very well push Outma over the top.
“We’d be ambitious to say we’re going to get to 100 and we’re going to build, but we’d be hopeful for that,” said Rathjen.
“I think staff are certainly looking forward to the opportunity for expansion, but we certainly don’t want to do it at that cost” of West Bench closing.
Outma has a reciprocal agreement with School District 67 that allows students to transfer between facilities, regardless of their heritage.
That deal, combined with West Bench’s proximity to Outma and its relatively high number of aboriginal kids – estimated by a parents’ group at 40 per cent of the 90 learners there – bodes well for the PIB.
First, however, School District 67 trustees are expected to discuss tonight at their regular meeting a proposal from the West Bench to raise taxes in order to provide a special operating subsidy to help keep the community’s school open.
According to an analysis prepared by Michael Brydon, who represents West Bench on the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, a $150,000-a-year operating grant would cost the average homeowner there about $220 annually.
That’s a bargain compared to the estimated $6,000 loss in value an average property owner experienced the moment the decision was made to close the school, concluded Brydon, citing a U.S. study on the issue.
Besides his proposal, trustees are also expected tonight to hear from three parents from Trout Creek, home to another elementary school that’s slated for closure June 30.
The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the school board office on Jermyn Avenue.