Trustees of School District 53 had already decided to close Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS) when they received an offer from the Town of Osoyoos of more than $1 million over three years to keep the school open.
School board chair Marieze Tarr acknowledged last Wednesday during another tense meeting between trustees and Osoyoos residents trying one last time to keep OSS open that this was the reason the school district didn’t discuss the offer with the town before rejecting it.
The admission came shortly after trustees voted 4-3 to approve third reading of a bylaw that will close OSS as of June 30.
The town announced Monday is would be going to court to fight the school board’s decision, calling into question the process followed by the school district.
“The problem is we received the letter of financial promise last week, which was after the decision was already made to close the school.” Tarr said, when asked by a member of the audience why there was no discussion with the town of its offer.
“Now we’re being honest,” interjected Osoyoos councillor Mike Campol, as others, stunned by Tarr’s response, called out that the school board had planned to close OSS all along and the “consultation” process was a waste of time.
Tarr repeatedly banged her gavel at these interjections and announced she was adjourning the meeting.
Members of Osoyoos council were present at the meeting attended by more than 120 people in the hot and stuffy annex of the school district offices in Oliver.
Before the vote, they pleaded with the board to listen to the Osoyoos community, reverse the decision made April 6 when the bylaw received two readings, and instead grant a year’s delay to find a solution.
Coun. C.J. Rhodes spoke before the board voted, telling them he was going to forego the speaking notes he usually uses.
“Tonight I’m going to talk to you from my heart,” he said, as he spoke of how the Osoyoos community came together with as many as 20 to 25 per cent of the town showing up at public meetings.
“I beg you, I implore you to change your mind,” he said. “You are empowered to change your mind tonight and make the decision that is right, to not go down in history as making that pinnacle of bad decisions.”
Mayor Sue McKortoff told the board that the town’s offer of more than $1 million would have addressed the school district’s budget problem. She pointed out that, contrary to the belief of trustees, it was not contingent on a referendum if the town delayed other projects and used funding that was already allocated in the budget.
“We are asking for a one-year delay on your decision allowing more time to consider district plans,” she said. “Residents need more time to make decisions about the future of their children’s education. Our community is engaged and prepared to work with you for the betterment of all.”
She noted that projected net savings to the district by closing OSS would be $387,300 based on SD 53’s projection of increased busing costs at $67,400.
“We are prepared to refute that figure as our transportation experts believe that the (busing) figure could easily be double that amount,” McKortoff said. “The savings to close OSS could possibly be $275,000, which is a small hurdle to overcome as compared to the social and economic damage that closing the school will cause to our community.”
If the board voted to close OSS, McKortoff warned the town would have no other option “but to initiate what we feel is the worst option” – going to court.
“Legal proceedings are in draft form right now,” she said, holding up a still-unsigned affidavit from an Osoyoos parent. “We are prepared to stop or start this process tonight.”
The town is considering seeking an injunction, which would temporarily halt the closure, and possibly a judicial review of the process used by the school district to close OSS or other legal action.
Despite the pleas from parents, PAC (Parent Advisory Council) representatives, council members, a retired superintendent of schools from West Vancouver, and NDP Education Critic Rob Fleming, the vote was a repeat of the ones on April 6.
The two Oliver trustees – Rob Zandee and Rachel Allenbrand – were joined by Debbie Marten of Cawston-Keremeos and Sam Hancheroff of Okanagan Falls in voting to close the school.
Those voting against were the two Osoyoos trustees, June Harrington and Tarr, as well as Cawston-Keremeos trustee Myrna Coates.
Speeches by the trustees covered the same points as the April 6 meeting. They argued the board faced funding pressures with declining enrolment and downloaded cost pressures from the province, that students will be better off in a larger school with more course choices and larger class sizes.
Several trustees also took exception to the criticism trustees have faced on social media, through letters and verbal comments and in the media.
Throughout their speeches (see video on OsoyoosTimes.com), trustees faced interjections and jeers from the audience, often from Campol.
When Zandee talked about what trustees have faced, Campol interjected: “We get it Rob, you’re the victim.”
An angry Zandee responded: “This is exactly what I’m talking about.”
After the meeting, Campol expressed surprise that the board never discussed the fact that they didn’t need to close the school because the town was offering to fund it.
He thinks this is because the idea conflicted with what the board wanted the end result to be – the closure of OSS.
“If a suggestion or an idea doesn’t fit the narrative of closing the school, it’s not worth debating (by the board),” he said.
The community and council came up with good cost-saving ideas, he said, but time was an obstacle to implementing them.
“We literally bought the time to explore those options over a year, two years, three years. So there was no reason to close the school except that they wanted it to be closed. It had nothing to do with budget and they proved that tonight.”
Campol said the process was disingenuous and it is now up to the courts to decide.
Coun. Rhodes said he was disappointed the town’s financial offer wasn’t properly discussed, even though a letter from Tarr stating reasons for the rejection appeared to have been thought out.
“It’s important for everyone to know that there was no interaction with council of any kind,” Rhodes said after the meeting. “There was not a telephone call, there was not an attempt of any kind to interact regarding that subject in any way, shape or form.”
Coun. Carol Youngberg pointed out that a discussion of the board’s budget the night before, in which members of the community participated, identified $901,000 in possible savings.
She thinks the decision to close OSS was made prior to the Jan. 13 meeting when the board voted to begin “public consultations.”
Brenda Dorosz, chair of the Save Our Schools (SOS) committee, was subdued and conciliatory in her comments to the board before the vote.
“I didn’t have anything else to say,” she explained after the meeting. “I’ve said enough in the last three months and I felt they weren’t going to listen to us, so I just stood up and didn’t want to get angry. Our kids matter and education should be first. It was a done deal and it’s just not fair to our kids.”
Now, she said, efforts will move full-speed ahead to establish an independent school in Osoyoos.
Harrington, the only trustee to have consistently opposed closure of OSS, said she was devastated by the board’s decision.
“I just so wanted for kids to be able to go to school in their own community,” she said. “I just wish I could have convinced the others, but somehow minds are made up.”
Asked how it’s been for her personally to be outnumbered on the board, she replied: “Very tough. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”