Cheers, a few fist pumps and gasps of delight escaped from the throats of about two dozen Pangman and area residents attending the April 19 meeting of the South East Cornerstone Public School Division when they learned that a motion to discontinue Grades 9 through 12 at Pangman School had just been defeated by a 6-4 vote among the trustees.
The motion to eliminate the four grades, leaving the community of about 750 with a kindergarten to Grade 8 school configuration, was brought forward by Estevan trustee Janet Foord who was subsequently joined in the vote count by trustees Bryan Wilson, Harold Laich and Len Williams. Those opposing the motion included Estevan's Pam Currie along with Audrey Trombley, Kevin Keating, Daryl Harrison, Bruce Wagner and chairwoman Carol Flynn.
Each trustee accepted the opportunity to speak on the motion prior to the vote and compelling arguments for both sides of the issue were presented, but when the final tally was taken, the tension in the public gallery suddenly broke with whoops of celebration that quickly led to Flynn calling for a 10 minute recess so that trustees could meet with the Pangman delegation and a sense of order could eventually return to the school division's conference room in Weyburn.
“I really didn't expect this. Even though we made our final case pretty well at the public forum in Pangman a few weeks ago, I was thinking they were still going to eliminate those grades,” said Brian Jesse, one of the community leaders who had made earlier pleas to the trustees as well as making a presentation at the open forum.
Elwood White, another celebrant said he had entered the room on Thursday cautiously optimistic.
“After the community meeting, I felt we had made a difference. We have a good school facility and a new day care program was put in there just a couple of years ago.”
He was correct in the assumption that the public forum had made a difference since Keating, who represents Subdivision 4 (Alameda, Oxbow, Lampman) admitted that the Pangman session “turned my vote around. Before that, I was leaning toward discontinuing those grades, but after I took a good look at the school and listened carefully to what was being discussed at the forum, I changed my mind.”
“I do have questions, but I'm willing to give the community time to grow and we do have alternatives for the higher grades with online courses. There is quality programming available,” said Harrison, the trustee for Subdivision 3 (Carievale, Carnduff, Redvers).
The review process had to be undertaken after the school's enrolment dropped to 70. The minimum student enrolment requirement for a full kindergarten to Grade 12 program is 88 according to provincial standards. If a school does not meet minimum requirements, a review to determine possible closure or discontinuance of some grades is to be considered by the division's board. Several months of consideration are required before a decision is made and that process began last September when the board issued a public statement of intent to review the Pangman School status.
All trustees thanked the Pangman representatives for their polite, respectful and thoughtful manner in defending the school and the community's programming. Wilson warned them however, that if the school population doesn't increase within the next year, “this issue is not going away. There are a number of small schools that are close to other schools and it's not in the cards for us to take money from the operations of other schools to support capital costs elsewhere. The model today is to get students working in groups and that's hard to do if you only have two kids in a class.”
Laich, who represents Subdivision 2 (Arcola, Carlyle, Maryfield, Wawota), in supporting the motion, said that the enrolment bump that the entire school division was expecting with the economic boom just didn't materialize and at the high school level, students needed person-to-person contact with teachers.
Flynn, the Subdivision 1 representative (Moosomin, Rocanville,Wapella), said she hoped Pangman would be able to retain their students at the local level since forecast enrolments point to some tough situations for the community based on their current Grade 8, 9 and 10 registrations, but looked better after that.
“I know voting against the motion won't fix your problem overnight but I've learned a lot in the process and I've seen how positive you've been and I took note of that. I had a concern about the transportation ... the distance some students would have had to go if these grades had been discontinued so I hope you see some additions in the future. We do have other small schools in the division, so we will have to continue to study sustainability issues. But we can't make an example of one school, we need to look at this as an overall subject of how we can handle all of our smaller schools,” she said.
Len Williams (Weyburn) said he voted in favour of discontinuing the grades because he feared that the students would eventually gravitate towards the larger schools anyway and were willing to travel long distances to do so. He said separation of friendships occurs once students reach their senior years.
Williams said he ultimately decided to support a recommendation to discontinue some grades for financial concerns in part, since he knew retaining them would put pressure on the division's budget and the board no longer had any wherewithal to increase funding since that is all done through the provincial government now.
“That means the subsidy has to come from other schools,” Williams said.
White and Jesse, still elated several minutes after hearing the decision, pointed out to the media that a new housing project is already underway in Pangman which will accommodate a growing population and the local economy was strong so they retained a sense of optimism regarding future enrolments.
Jesse noted that housing is more affordable in Pangman which is just a half-hour from Weyburn, so there was a good opportunity for it to become a housing alternative for those working in the area.
Foord, who proposed the motion, didn't seem too upset with the decision to defeat it. She said that when all was said and done, she felt that the children in the school were obviously being raised in a caring community.
“I've had to go through this kind of thing four times now and each time it brought tears,” she said. But not this time. She said she will comply with the group decision, but everyone needed to be mindful that the decision means the division's funding formula will be penalized because “the government will not pay to keep unused spaces open.”
Scattered among the Pangman group were a number of young people of high school age who were maybe skipping a class or two to experience democracy in action at the local level. When the decision was recorded and the cheers broke out, the younger delegates gasped with delight, looked at one another, exchanged a few high fives and immediately left the room, no doubt prepared to send a text message to others impatiently waiting in a school hallway back home.