Friday, March 16, 2007

Update: School board grants extension until June 1st

From Page A3 of the Herald (16 March, 2007):

"The Okanagan Skaha school board is giving the city until June 1 to complete its investigation of costs involved in saving the Pen-Hi auditorium, but remains firm in its plans to tear down the school's gymnasium [...] Little said the board agreed to extend its previous March 31 deadline, but only for the city to look into preserving the auditorium.

[...] If the north gym is preserved, Ministry of Education guidelines call for the floor space of the new gymnasium to be decreased accordingly.

The north gym site of Eckhardt Avenue is seen as critical for a bus entrance to the new school parking lot, as well as a green space and a 'safe zone' for students in the area."

My editorial comments:

The objective of SOAP is for the City of Penticton to take over both the Pen-Hi auditorium and north gym for community use. In return, the school district may be compensated with money or a land swap. Or perhaps they will simply be asked to do without a green space and safe zone. These are implementation details. Naturally, if the taxpayers of Penticton are on the hook for the "fair market value" of the land in question, we should expect the proceeds of the sale to benefit the school district. Thus, funds requested of taxpayers in School District 67 should be reduced accordingly.

I personally find Mr. Little's assertions regarding what the school district will and will not allow a bit troubling. Why would the school board (which is elected by citizens of the community to serve citizens of the community) stand in the way of another elected body (the municipal government) if that government wants to act on behalf of the community and make a proposal regarding the gymnasium? I understand that the school board has its mandate and that mandate is different from that of the municipal government. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there is only one set of interests that matter here, and they are the broad interests of the community as a whole. One group of taxpayers pays the bills for both the school district and the city.

As for the oft-repeated threat that Pen-Hi will lose gym space if the north gym is saved, this would only be the case if the school district retained the gym for its own use. (Plus, this might be a more convincing threat if the foundation for the new school was not already in place.) Since the proposal currently being investigated by the city specifies community, rather than school ownership of the facilities, I am not sure why Mr. Little keeps bringing this up. We get it: The school board does not want the gym and auditorium for school use (despite what all the folks who actually teach at Pen-Hi are saying). More importantly, we get the underlying message that the school board has no money to contribute to saving the buildings. But it is the school board's turn to get our message: The community wants the gym and auditorium for community use.

Finally, there is the issue of the "green space" and "safe zones". These terms are much more attractive than "parking lot", so I see why they have been inserted into the discourse by the school board chair. Knocking down good buildings to make room for a parking lot sounds scandalous; but who can argue with green space and safe zones for bus unloading? I, for one, am a bit skeptical. Green space and safe zones sound like nice things, but I am not sure they are "critical", as Mr. Little asserts. We are talking about Pen-Hi here, not an elementary school. If these students are so vulnerable to traffic, how come they seem to have no problem skipping across Main Street every day at lunch? And let's face it, a green zone that is on school property (and hence unusable by smokers) might as well be a parking lot. Indeed, the mass exodus across Main Street every day at noon would be much less massive if the existing green space in front of the Shatford and Ellis buildings was highly valued by students.

Ultimately, we as taxpayers and citizens have to recognize the nature of this alleged trade-off: Do we want safe zone and green space for our kids (young adults, really) or do we want a gym and auditorium for everyone? Or can we have both? Clearly, saving these two large buildings is going to create challenges for the designers of the new Pen-Hi. However, as taxpayers, we should expect these challenges to be addressed with some creativity and resourcefulness. In my view, repackaging a parking lot as a safe zone falls short of the standard.

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