In this age of instant search of anything much of the intrigue of magical acts, like the disappearing and “magically” reappearing coin, has lost its lustre as we can easily go to Google or utube and see how simply the coin is “palmed” out of sight for a moment before “magically” reappearing seemingly out of nowhere.

I think it might be a lot easier to understand the current statements by School District #71 board and administrators about their intentions in regard to closing Puntledge Park Elementary School if we look on it as a kind of disappearing magic show. Currently they are telling the community that they have no idea what they would do with this gem of the community once it is closed. Now this is a lot bigger act than a disappearing coin, but it is based on the same kind of sleight of hand magic act. Right before our eyes they simply disappear the school with “no plans”—or even thought– to what they might do with it once it is closed. And suddenly, at some later date, they will reach down in their bag/hat of tricks and—as if by magic—out of the bag jumps a spanking new residential subdivision!

The thing about the disappearing coin is that we come to the show knowing that all we will see is an illusion but-for a moment-we suspend our critical perceptions in order to be entertained. However, I am not willing to suspend my critical perceptions about a disappearing school. Just as we all know the coin is hidden somewhere, so it is blatantly obvious that no school board—despite their claims to the contrary–would close one of its most highly acclaimed schools in the school district with absolutely NO thought to what they might do with the property after the closure. To be even minimally competent and accountable, a school board has to have some idea of what might become of a multimillion dollar property.

The thing about the disappearing coin trick is that once you know the mechanism for hiding the coin you can actually detect the flexion in the thumb muscle that tucks the coin away under the palm. Once we accept that School District #71 is accountable enough to have some idea of what might become of the Puntledge property when the school is closed, it is much easier to see through the tell tale palming trick that gives away the we don’t know nothing disappearing school act.

What is it that so clearly reveals this multimillion dollar school disappearing trick? Well, in addition to the fact that it would be utterly irresponsible to close a school with no thought to what might become of the vacant property, the key to understanding this disappearing school magic lies—like the key to most magic acts– in seeing the same actions minus all the distractions. To understand what is going on with the Puntledge School we need to look at School District 71’s response to suggestions by the community that rather than close a much loved, highly acclaimed, central, idyllic, historic and gifted to the community school like Puntledge, the District might consider moving the recently opened NIDES Tsolum school to Lake Trail which would put it within reach of the greater Comox Valley community.
By the district’s own assertion Lake Trail is currently operating inefficiently and under capacity and offers more potential than what is being realized. As opposed to the closure of the Puntledge school, everyone would benefit from moving NIDES to a more central location; but the School District immediately snapped back that such a proposal would not work because ‘the Tsolum School property has a covenant on the title.’ You see, therein, the sleight of hand is blatantly revealed for all to see. There was no mention of the fact that– though Puntledge was gifted to the school district for creating educational opportunity in the community– there is no covenant on the title protecting the continuity of this magnificent gift to the community. The first response to the Tsolum proposal is not about operational economic efficiency nor quality of educational opportunity, nor the value of a centrally located NIDES location, it was about the first thing they checked—the covenant on the title. AND you can be certain that the first thing the School District checked in planning for the closure of Puntledge was for any covenants on the land title of the property. The meaning and the mechanism of the disappearing school act are fully revealed. You can bet your magic act money that the second thing the District did after finding a clear title on the Puntledge School was to evaluate the bucks developers or private schools might pay for the property.

Why else would the school district target an ideally sited, loved, respected, educationally exceptional and fully utilized school in the district for closure?–for dubiously projected, short-term savings in the district’s operational budget? While Puntledge is targeted for closure, the board’s view of other underutilized schools like Glacier View and Courtenay Elementary is—well Glacier View “meets the needs of their students, which we would not want to change” and Courtenay Elementary is “an excellent location for students in their catchment area.” However, no such consideration for the unique, multidimensional learning environment at Puntledge? Now we seemed to have switched from the palming the coin trick to the shell game where only the magician knows what is really going on.

Did we not elect these school board trustees to bring out the best in educational opportunities for our children? In the words of one Puntledge parent, Puntledge School is an “exceptional property, surrounded by forest on three sides, with an active salmon stream right outside the school, and has been the social, economic and cultural heart of the community for 50 years. Its capacity for nature education-in-place and its suitability for aboriginal and special needs programs is unparalleled. The school is highly functioning, operating at capacity, and a model for what a great neighbourhood school can be.”

While the district says it will continue to run a community styled school for those relocated to the Lake Trail site, without the history, the salmon bearing stream, the woods, and site off the main streets, how much would be lost in crowding so many into Lake Trail and thus forcing the closure of Lake Trail’s facilitates for its unique community involvement. Lake Trail is well situated and equipped to work as a centrally-located hub for alternative K-12 education. There is demand in the Comox Valley for alternative arts, technology and trades based programming. Instead of closing down Lake Trail’s speciality rooms to make room for expanded standard classrooms to accommodate elementary students from Puntledge, the Lake Trail facility could – no expensive renos required – be promoted as a community-based, alternative school.

Moving elementary students to Lake Trail would mean exposing more students, more times, in more ways to the threat of two busy streets flanking Lake Trail school—a consideration of considerable importance to myself as I have had to witness the tragic consequences of abutting a school directly onto a busy road—an experience that will continue to haunt all my days.
Currently the School Board staff are awaiting engineering reports regarding required conversion of the Lake Trail parking lot. Costs are currently estimated at $50,000. However mitigation of safety concerns and management of increased traffic demands could increase this figure to $250,000 or more—greatly undercutting projected cost benefits to moving young Puntledge students to Lake Trail.

Advocates for saving the Puntlege school point out that much of the costing of the move is underestimated and the benefits greatly exaggerated. Why?—because no one is, as yet talking about the real motivation for the move—the Puntledge property is valuable to others whose interest is in its residential subdivision potential and aren’t concerned with the quality of education in the valley—except when it is a part of the reason for families to move to the valley.

But, then as Jack Stevens, retired educator and founder of the Community School movement points out, the kind of community involved, multidimensional educational opportunity offered at Puntledge is, in fact, one of the most significant reasons that young families will decide to stay and invest in our community. For them to choose the Comox Valley as home “we are going to have to invest in them and in their children’s education.” “Comprehensive, neighbourhood community schools must be the goal.” In Stevens view each community school should act as a hub for the delivery of services, including quality day care, recreation, skills training as is– so exactly– what the Puntledge school is about.

When numbers are presented in this manner, the situation appears far different. Not only will the realized saving in the first year potentially be significantly reduced, it might cost the school district in the end to carry out this proposal.

It isn’t just School District #71 that is being forced to cut into the quality of education to meet criteria imposed on them that has nothing to do with excellence in education. And, to recognize the bind our school board is in, if school boards fail to cut schools and quality of education to meet budget restraints imposed from above, they can be replaced Flint, Michigan style with an imposed single administrator that has no more commitment to quality of education than the administrator foisted on Flint had to the health and well being of that city’s residents.

This whole discussion will remain a sleight of hand magic act until the School Board puts both hands on the table palms up and talks openly and honestly with citizens of the Comox Valley about what is really the basis of their desire to close such a much loved school in the valley and what will be the future of education in our valley if real estate values continue to be put before educational values by the very board that is supposed to be putting the education of our children first.

Actually I would like to modify the above paragraph. I know several of our school board representatives as cherished friends. I trust that everyone of the board believes they are acting to do just that: put the education of our children first. I realize that the final decision isn’t in on closing Puntledge School or any of the other proposed changes. I trust that they will all hear this thundering community plea to recognize the many very special qualities at Puntledge that make schools all over our country drool to have access to the kind of multidimensional, nature-based educational facility that has evolved around the Puntledge school site. I believe that putting away the disappearing act, speaking openly about what is being considered and working with the community, we can –together—imagine a future for our schools that in not only sustaining to our children, but through community-engaged leadership incorporates outstanding learning opportunities, community involvement and long-term economic sustainability.

To learn more about plans to save Puntledge School:

Happy Trails!