VICTORIA — Rural school districts in British Columbia have access to new funding intended to stop a wave of closures of rural schools across the province.
Premier Christie Clark an-nounced the $2.5 million Rural Education Enhancement Fund in Quesnel, where the school district had already announced the closure of three rural schools this year.
“It’s going to mean that at least nine schools that were slated to close are going to be able to stay open, if the school boards choose to keep them open,” Clark said.
“We are also appointing Linda Larson from Oliver as our parliamentary secretary for rural education because we need a renewed focus on this.”
Funding is available by application to school districts outside Greater Victoria, the Lower Mainland and Kelowna and with a population less than 15,000.
It can be used only where the school closure would eliminate specific grades within the community and is limited to use for specific schools.
Closures due to facility condition or extreme enrolment decline are not eligible.
Forty-five schools have closed in the province since 2010 because of declining enrolment, costs downloaded to the school districts and pressure from the provincial education ministry to operate schools at 95 percent capacity.
Districts say they are thankful for the funding, but the timing of the announcement and tight application deadlines have raised concern and fueled uncertainty in some communities.
Districts were given seven days to submit applications and will not receive a decision until the end of June. By law, school districts in B.C. are required to submit a balanced budget by June 30.
“We had meetings with our MLA to talk about the school closures, and there was no indication or hint that the funding was coming,” said Tony Goulet, chair of District 28 in Quesnel.
“Our board went through a consultation process and made a decision to close three schools. We’ve been going through the process of moving kids to different schools and dealing with staffing issues. This puts everything on hold until we know what the decision is.”.
Even if the district receives the money this year, Goulet is skeptical that the district will be able to keep the schools open.
“With an election in 2017, who knows what will happen,” he said.
Clark has also asked Larson and Donna Barnett, parliamentary secretary for rural development, to conduct a full study of rural education funding in the province to seek a long-term solution.