Parents emotional over school closures

NANAIMO – Hundreds attended first public meeting on district's facilities plan.

More than 400 emotional parents, students, district employees and community members showed up to the first public forum Wednesday evening to discuss Nanaimo school district’s proposed 10-year facilities plan.

The draft plan calls for major changes, including school closures, rebuilding facilities and adding enrichment programs to a number of schools.

The first forum at Cedar Secondary School focused on proposed changes in the Cedar area: closing all four elementary schools in the region, moving secondary students to John Barsby Secondary School and making Cedar secondary an elementary school with an arts enrichment program.

Kathie Aarsen, who has two children at Cedar secondary, worries that shipping secondary students to Barsby could lead to more dropouts.

“If you’re being shipped in, you’re not connecting with anybody,” she said. “You miss your bus, you miss school, you become disinterested, you quit.”

Stacey Nielsen, who has two children attending South Wellington, felt that trustees were not really listening or looking at the social aspect of community schools.

Her family lives near the old Waterloo school site, but she knows the parents in South Wellington because that’s where her children go to school. If the plan is approved, her children will be split up, with one attending North Cedar and the other attending Woodbank, she said.

Aarsen said that Barsby is already in the optimal size range and there still aren’t enrichment programs available to those students, so she is skeptical that more opportunities would arise if Cedar students attended that school.

Wendy Wise, co-chairwoman of the North Oyster parent group, said parents at the school understand the district can’t run a bunch of half-empty buildings, but they want more than one elementary school in the area and they feel that it is more logical to send North Cedar and South Wellington students to North Oyster because the building is in better condition.

“If one of their schools was in better shape, we wouldn’t be adverse to moving there,” she said.

The proposed timeline is to close South Wellington and North Oyster schools in June, with students moved to Woodbank and North Cedar; relocate secondary students to John Barsby in the fall of 2014; and move all elementary students to the Cedar secondary site in the fall of 2015.

The meeting started with a greeting from Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Doug White III, who told the crowd that the plan was developed without engaging with the Snuneymuxw and that the band hopes to secure federal funding to build an elementary school in the area.

“We need to have a coordinated discussion about this,” he said.

White’s comments were followed by critical remarks by some audience members about the format of the forum – people were divided into groups based on concerns brought up through online feedback, as opposed to trustees taking presentations in one big meeting.

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, emphasized that no decisions have been made and that trustees set up the meeting to encourage maximum input from as many residents as possible, rather than simply hearing from the 50 or 60 people who feel comfortable talking in front of a large crowd.

The district sent out an invite to all of the region’s public bodies, including Snuneymuxw First Nation, to meet separately with district officials regarding the plan, he added.

A second public forum happened Thursday evening at Woodlands Secondary School and two more are scheduled next week – one in Ladysmith and one at Dover Bay Secondary School. The board is expected to make a decision at its June 26 meeting. For more information on the proposed facilities plan, please go to www.sd68.bc.ca.