Closed-door decision upsets parents
Ranger Park Preschool is scheduled to be closed Jan. 1, a decision made by Smithers town council at a closed-door meeting on Aug. 12.
Council decided to make that in-camera decision public the day after the program’s fall session started: at its meeting last Tuesday where chambers were packed with parents and other members of the community upset at both the closure and the way the decision was made.
Councillors explained they held the vote to close the education program attended by two-and-a-half to five-year-olds out of the public forum because of the effect it had on employees. They told members of the gallery that it was a requirement by law.
Charla Kilbeck started the Facebook group Help Keep Ranger Park Open, which had 212 members as of press time. She did not hear about the closure until the Friday before last Tuesday’s meeting and felt it was dropped on parents out of the blue.
“I’m concerned it’s a valuable resource in Smithers that we’re going to be losing. I have two small boys, and my oldest went there and my youngest is going and I think it’s an awesome program,” said Kilbeck, who felt more advertising was needed.
It was explained by town staff at the meeting that staffing issues had the town unsure of the state of the program, which is why it held off on advertising. Most people concerned about the closure stuck around until almost midnight to speak to council. Jane McCord was one of those concerned citizens. She was with the program for 27 years and called it a privilege.
“There’s so much there: there’s so much equipment; there’s so much knowledge; there’s so much planning. There’s 27 years of my heart there. I do believe it can be financially viable,” said McCord.
The vote to close the school was a split one, with councillors Bill Goodacre and Phil Brienesse voting against the closure and mayor Taylor Bachrach on vacation and not in attendance. Goodacre said at the meeting that the idea to shut down the preschool had never been discussed in the three years he was on council, and voted against the closure because of how fast the move was made.
Coun. Brienesse made the motion at last Tuesday’s meeting to get more information on the preschool and subsidy funding on other town programs, saying more more information was needed to make a decision and that it should be made public.
“With the information I was given I definitely voted against it. Depending on what more information was presented if it was to be done again I would probably still vote against it,” said Brienesse, whose daughter attended the program and who believes such programs are important in drawing and keeping young families in Smithers.
“It’s not even so much about the financials of it because almost every program the town runs for youth loses money. Town recreation in general loses money; it’s something we provide for people. I think there’s a philosophy amongst some councillors that we shouldn’t be in the business of providing this service,” said Brienesse, who pointed to the differences in the Ranger Park Preschool compared to the other preschool in town and daycares.
Current Ranger Park teacher Michelle Storey explained what makes the program unique. She explained that the three-hour drop-in option for parents was very important.
“You don’t have to be registered. A lot of parents like the three hours because it’s nice for the parents that don’t necessarily work but just want to have the break or that three hours to go and do what they need to do,” said Storey.
Early special needs education is also offered by the preschool.
“We have (trained) aids that come and help in the classroom with that. Right now I would say we have probably out of our seven classes probably four of them have some sort of special needs (children),” said Storey.
“Ranger Park school is not just a recreational thing for children. It’s an educational program,” stressed Storey.
Coun. Mark Bandstra at the meeting said he believed the preschool was something that other organizations can provide, and need not be run by the town. He also said he would like it to become an election issue, although he also announced at the meeting that he was not running in November’s election.
“When it was first put into place… there were not alternatives. I think it’s not just about money and that’s why I’m not going to support (Brienesse’s) motion. That’s just fact and figures, and it’s more than that,” said Bandstra, then adding that the costs of running the program had gone up over the years.
Though he missed the August meeting, Mayor Bachrach did say he understood the need for privacy but was uncomfortable with the decision being made in private. Bachrach, whose children also attended the preschool, said the two factors to consider were managerial and philosophical. He said he understood Brienesse’s motion as a point on what the town should support financially.
“Really it’s a question of do we see it as a priority, is there a need in the community, and is it something that the community supports their local government providing,” said Bachrach.