Two very different schools this week made pleas on very similar grounds to school trustees considering whether to close them.
Shady Valley is undeniably a rural school, even though it sits within the boundaries of the city of Prince George.
South Fort George is undeniably an urban school. But it’s unique location tucked away in a quiet corner of the city and its position as the focal point of the community make it feel like a rural school, said parents.
“I really do believe if the school were to close, a light would go out in the community,” said Tim Hayes, a pastor with the Evangelical Missionary Church, which uses the school for services.
South Fort George has just 94 students and is projected to drop to 79 by 2005, according to school district figures.
Trustees were told the school is the focal point of a community, similar to the school in a rural community. It was described by all presenters as an oasis in the middle of a chaotic world.
Deb Ewen described it as the “spirit” of the neighbourhood, adding it is “more than a school; we are a family.”
Added Candy Hewitt to huge applause: “South Fort George isn’t just a place it’s an attitude. If we lose our school, we lose part of our history.”
Parents compared this sense of community to their perceptions of the Carney Hill and Ron Brent neighbourhoods the schools pegged to receive South Fort George students.
“The areas surrounding these schools are war zones and everyone knows it,” said Maria Novak.
Presenter after presenter narrated the trip students from South Fort would have to take to either school. Each way north on Queensway or west through the Heritage Trail system by the Hudson’s Bay Slough offers a cornucopia of prostitution, drug houses, crime and threats of violence, they said.
In what was perhaps the most emotional school closure meeting this year, most of the 30 people who got up to plead with the board not to close their school were in tears.
Even so, there was sometimes an air of resignation that prompted some to also fight for what they said were the best interests of their children if the school does close.
Cathy Gordy, Parent Advisory Council chair, noted a survey of parents found the vast majority would send their kids to Van Bien rather than Carney Hill or Ron Brent. Van Bien is not listed as a receiving school, but “all kids should have the option of choosing Van Bien as a catchment area school,” she said.
She and other parents also went on to say that, if South Fort George is closed, the board will have no choice but to provide bus service for the students.
Buses were at the heart of Shady Valley school’s pleas to keep its doors open. In their case, parents argued the bus ride to Hart Highlands would add up to 30 minutes to an already long ride for many students.
Almost a third of the students are Lheidli T’enneh band members who already ride a half hour to get to school. The added journey would be excessive, said band elder Ron Seymour.
Shady Valley truly is a rural school, set amidst farm land and large acreages with most students riding the bus.
It is not eligible for the same Small Community Supplement as other rural schools such as Hixon and Bear Lake because of its proximity on a map to other schools and the board office.
The supplement would allow the school to stay open, because it would bring more funding into the district than it costs to run it.
But school board chair Bill Christie said the provincial government is hesitating in answering the district’s request for the supplement.
They fear making a special exception to the rule in this case may mean setting a precedent that could cost them millions in the long run.
Prince George MLAs Pat Bell and Shirley Bond have been working with the school to try to convince Education Minister Christy Clark to release the money.
They have until April 15, when the board will make its final decisions on which schools to close.