Rossland offers school district a deal to maintain K-12 in the community
Council was divided 4-3 last week in their decision to offer School District No. 20 (SD20) $140,000 per year for three years in exchange for K-12 and respite from the threat of school closures for at least five years—but SD20 hasn’t indicated it will bite, and any deal with the school district will be put to a referendum before being ratified.
Coun. Jill Spearn, both a teacher in the elementary school and council’s representative on the Neighbourhoods of Learning (NOL) committee, spearheaded the motion for Rossland to offer SD20 the $420,000 grant-in-aid. The motion also resolved that the city reserve the right to purchase the MacLean Annex in 2018, and that the grant-in-aid be considered “full payment” if the city chooses to purchase.
The motion was amended by Coun. Kathy Wallace to require the city to put to a referendum any deal that may eventually be struck between SD20 and the city.
The decision to pursue a deal with SD20 follows an NOL-administered survey to determine residents’ appetite for taxes to be spent to avoid the K-9 option School District No. 20 (SD20) chose for Rossland two months ago. The survey received feedback from more than one-third of Rossland households and found strong statistical significance that between 55 and 65 per cent of Rosslanders were willing to pay up to $55 per year per household as a temporary measure to ensure K-12 remains in the community.
Spearn makes the motion and Moore seconds it
“I am less than satisfied [with SD20’s decision] but I still hope a partnership can be struck between SD20 and Rossland,” Spearn said. “We should do everything in our power to partner with SD20 and maintain K-12. We cannot have school closures just to balance budgets. If a school is to close, it should be because it’s not meeting the needs of the children in the community.”
“It’s time to move beyond closing schools in communities and to find creative solutions,” she continued, noting the economic losses she felt the K-9 option would incur in terms of a loss of population, loss of international and academy students, and a loss in value of the residences—she cited evidence from other communities with home values reduced between four and 15 per cent after school closures. Another study of small towns with and without schools found a 16 per cent difference in home values.
Spearn also pointed to social and environmental costs of ending K-12 in Rossland. “Many people in the community say we can’t afford to raise taxes,” she said. “There’s a lot more to lose in Rossland if we don’t have K-12. K-12 is part of a full-service community.”
“RSS has been recognized for significant student achievement. It’s a fallacy to believe that moving to Crowe leaves students better off educationally,” Spearn said, adding that educational success had more to do with teacher-student ratios.
“Is the K-9 option the most educationally sound?” Spearn asked. “No. Does it reflect the financial shortcomings of province? Absolutely.”
Coun. Kathy Moore agreed with the sentiment, but had questions about the deal. “I feel we’ve been victimized by flawed information from SD20,” she said. Citing information Mayor Greg Granstrom had recently shared that municipalities are responsible for 66 per cent of the province’s infrastructure, but only receive 8 per cent of the tax revenue, Moore said it was “beyond offensive” that Rossland and other communities are “now put in a position to pick up some provincial responsibility for education.”
Nevertheless, Moore added, “I’m interested in a defined and limited term. I’m not willing to do this in perpetuity.” She said she wanted this temporary solution to “buy a little time to come up with some thinking that’s outside the box, to come up with something that doesn’t put the burden on the municipality.” She noted several ideas and opportunities that need time to pursue and said, “If we give up now and ship the kids down the hill, we won’t get them back.”
Moore was unsure about including the Annex in the motion. “We need a lot more information on that to see if it makes any sense.”
Furthermore, rather than strike a deal with SD20, Moore said, “What I’d like to see is the local municipalities rise up with SD20 and put pressure on the province. This community [Rossland] has worked harder than any to make that happen,” she said, but lamented a lack of effort on the part of SD20. “We’ve been forced into a situation to eat each others young, and thats wrong.”
“This [offer] shows we’re serious about finding solutions,” Moore said, but added, “We should listen and be cognizant of both sides of the issue: some people say they’re going to move if taxes go up any more, and others say they don’t think it’s that bad if the kids go down the hill.”
Fisher doesn’t want a tax increase
Coun. Cary Fisher thanked NOL for their efforts and noted that he is personally affected with three daughters in school, the eldest of whom is going into Grade 12.
“I sat and talked with her about this and I was surprised she came up with a lot of pluses and minuses to the whole scenario,” Fisher said. “From my perspective, the problem I see is not with the plan that’s been proposed but, through a broader lens, City of Rossland finances.”
Fisher noted implications “down the road” with multiple millions to be spent on sewage treatment and other infrastructure projects. “What does that do to our taxes and tax structure?” he asked.
If schools and K-12 are “priority number one, that’s fine,” he said, “but we have to cut other things. If everything’s going up, but we can’t afford it, it’s not sustainable to keep adding other things on. I’d feel more comfortable about this if there were no tax increase—other things have to go.”
Will SD20 go for it?
Mayor Greg Granstrom asked what NOL “feels is the probability of SD20 accepting $140,000 with right to purchase?”
Spearn related her experience at the last SD20 public form in which she “asked clearly: is the school board willing to have a conversation with the City of Rossland regarding partnerships. In my eyes [Board Chair Darrel Ganzert] said, ‘Yes we are.'”
She added, “I don’t know what the probability is, but you have to start somewhere.”
Granstrom responded that from his email communications he felt there was a “strong probability this will not to be passed by the board.” He asked, “If some of us know that’s not going to be accepted, why would we do this?”
Spearn said, “I believe we can enter into a conversation with them. Just like in any negotiation, we offer and they respond.”
Wallace and Thatcher torn by “brutal” jurisdictional issues
Coun. Kathy Wallace said, “I’m so torn by this, and I don’t know which way I’ll vote when the question is called. K-12 incredibly important to our community and I strongly disagree with the decision made by SD20, but that wasn’t my decision to make.”
She said she was struggling because “this is out of jurisdiction for us. A municipal council shouldn’t be placed in this position. It’s brutal. We have more than enough financial issues on our plate already.”
Agreeing with Fisher, she said, “Lots of people want to move here, but when they see the tax bill, they go somewhere else. If we’re going to take this on, we have to find somewhere else to offset. We can’t continue to raise and raise and raise [taxes].”
Coun Tim Thatcher said, “Education in Rossland is dear to my heart,” noting his kids and grandkids who have passed or will pass through the system. “But a double tax is not the way to go. Municipalities should not be in the education business, it’s a provincial mandate.”
Thatcher also spoke to the “catch 22” that with either higher taxes or the “school situation” people are going to leave town and it will be hard to attract new families.
“This is a situation we shouldn’t be in,” he said. “I’m not in favour of a tax increase. If we do go forward, we’ll have to cut in other areas.”
Spearn and Granstrom disagree
Granstrom noted “many conversations” with Board Chair Darrel Ganzert, that led him to understand that any offer made to the board “wouldn’t mean anything more than the school year it’s offered in; we can’t guarantee anything beyond that year.”
He said he understands the idea of “bridge financing for a few years to do X, Y, and Z, but we don’t have any guarantees our money will be spent to maintain K-12.” He said the motion is a nice “olive branch,” but nothing more. “We’re disadvantaged because we don’t have a say in taxation on school. What we have a say in is taxation for hard services in the community.”
Granstrom also didn’t like the message this motion would send: “It says that we’re going to take responsibility for the shortfall in provincial funding, putting it on our taxpayers. It says we’re willing to accept the download to our taxpayers with no guarantee.”
Spearn agreed that the “big problem” is at the provincial level. “We need to motivate people to go protest in Victoria,” she said, but added, “I don’t feel sorry for the school board. It’s their political job to make it work, and they’ve let us down.”
Spearn then argued, “I don’t think $45 per household over three years is very much money to retain K-12, and with a provincial election in May, we may not even have to have this conversation. It could be like in Nova Scotia where they put a moratorium on school closures.”
“Under all of this, NOL has many other things going on,” she continued, alluding to a range of creative schooling options being considered by the committee, “but we have to start somewhere and have that conversation about partnership. If they say no, then we’ve exhausted every opportunity, and then we go to the Ministry of Education.”
“I feel strongly it’s important for the sustainability of Rossland,” she concluded. “It’s great we have bumpouts, but if we don’t have kids and families, who cares about the bumpouts?”
Granstrom replied that the provincial election is unlikely to change the school issue. “We’ve all asked our NDP MLA about their education platform,” he said. “If the NDP were all of a sudden to have a magic wand, they would have come out a long time ago and said they would change it. They haven’t, and there’s a reason for that: I think it’s money.”
“The fact remains,” he concluded, “[SD20] is the legal entity that makes these decisions. What we’re being asked to do here is to get municipal taxpayers to put money in the coffers of the school board who have made the decision already. The download option comes up every time, and this sends the message that we are prepared to accept more downloads. I’m not for it.”
Blomme feels a more creative solution is needed
“This is something we all feel strongly about,” Coun. Jody Blomme said. “But I’m going to nitpick a bit at this specific resolution. We have to come up with something unconventional, to have a creative solution. The way this motion is presented, I don’t feel it’s the most creative possibility we have. It seems limited.”
“To pay $140,000 for three years and get 5 years out of it sounds like a good deal. But how will they guarantee we get 5 years out of a 3 year instalment? What power do they have to commit to some kind of contract? It takes us over the predicted dip in population, but the fact remains, I don’t see how it can be guaranteed.”
Spearn responded that the motion was “crafted with staff, the mayor, and NOL,” and there had been a strong opinion around the table “that we offer $420,000 up front, finance it over five years, and buy the Annex.”
She added, “The governance structure doesn’t lend itself to creative solutions.”
Regarding taxes, Spearn said, “We haven’t increased taxes in three years. Everyone knows a tax increase has to come.”
Referendum on a revenue-neutral deal
Moore asked about the timing of the NOL survey, for which only one week was given to receive responses. “Ideally, if we had time, I would like to see it go to referendum,” she said.
She also asked, “Do we even know if what we’re talking about is legal? Can we actually do this?” CAO Cecile Arnott responded there was a “strong likelihood” that it is legal because it is framed as a grant-in-aid.
Moore continued that any deal will “have to get the school board interested in a partnership. What we’re offering is revenue-neutral. They’ll only accept this deal if they’re willing to work with us, and I haven’t seen a lot of indication that they are. It’s important to give them the opportunity to try and work with us.”
Granstrom suggested that break-even for SD20 would be an offer of $260,000. “Why offer $140,000?” he asked. Spearn replied that $140,000 “works out revenue-neutral.”
Wallace then offered an amendment to the motion: “If accepted by SD20, we should put this out to a referendum to the community. I would feel much more comfortable if the community was behind it.”
Moore agreed, “I’d feel a lot better about that myself. It will give the full picture from the entire community in a complete way.” She said the amendment “added confidence in the decision.”
Blomme also agreed. She said she appreciated the effort that went into the NOL survey, but was not fully comfortable with the questions it asked and the one week window to respond. “Sitting here, to make this decision, I would have asked the questions differently,” she said.
Spearn responded, “If you have concerns about the survey, have you written them up so they can be addressed? Surveys are one way of finding out this information, and the timeline was short: it was urgent we get on with the conversation. My suggestion would be to run the survey again rather than a referendum.”
Granstrom said, “This is not our responsibility.”
Spearn countered, “Sustainability is,” to which the mayor asked, “What is sustainable?”
Moore interjected, “The only reason I’m supporting this is that it’s a temporary measure. This is only a short term bandaid to see if we can get another creative solution that will enable us to keep K-12 here. We’re not talking about the municipality taking on responsibility.”
Fisher spoke up against the referendum amendment: “It just drags it out; the buck stops here with what we want to do about this. It’s in all the documents [i.e. the Official Community Plan that supports K-12 in Rossland] but it puts us in a quandry as a community. We support K-12, but we’re not in charge of it. Someone else is and they say you don’t get it all [K-12], you get this [K-9].”
A new precedent of municipal involvement in education?
Thatcher asked, “Is this precedent setting?”
Spearn replied, “No, many municipalities in Canada made NOL partnerships in their communities with their school districts.” She clarified that by ‘partnership’ she meant “conditions around the use of space at RSS, and getting some of the Annex.”
Thatcher said, “There are more questions generated here than answers.”
Referendum amendment passes, Annex causes concern
The amendment to refer any deal with SD20 back to Rosslanders in a referendum passed with Spearn and Fisher opposed.
Before the full motion was then put to the vote, Moore said she preferred to deal with the clause about the Annex separately: “I have so many issues about the Annex,” she said.
Spearn replied, “The Annex is a capital asset. We have the right to refuse it, this just says we have the right to have that conversation. It’s a great building,” she said, with potential for youth and recreation, and this clause would inspire a “healthy conversation” around the building’s future.
Moore said, “I’m okay with that, because there would be more conversation.”
Nevertheless, Blomme felt the inclusion of the Annex in the deal “muddies the waters.” “It’s more for them to look at and agree to,” she said. “If it comes to the point that they want to sell it, then it’s not much of an issue. This makes it harder for them to agree to the first part. Why is it in there?”
Fisher responded, “It just gives the right [to first refusal].”
The amended motion passed with Blomme, Thatcher, and Granstrom opposed.