By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

Valemount parents are concerned that rural schools may bear the brunt of impending budget cuts following news of a $2M deficit in the School District 57 budget. In particular, the District’s proposal of cutting the school counselling position shared by Valemount’s Secondary and Elementary school has drawn criticism from parents.

Funding for counselling services is dependent on a school’s full-time enrollment levels, Superintendent Jameel Aziz told The Goat. The number of students enrolled in Valemount schools only qualifies its schools for one-eighth of a counsellor – that is, counselling could be provided for one hour out of the eight-hour school day.

“Rural high schools typically do not have full time counsellors,” Aziz said. “There’s no doubt that a full-time counselling role would be providing a service to students […] it’s just that we are funded by the Ministry of Education and Child Care, and the funding that we receive does not provide enough for a full-time counsellor.”

Valemount Secondary School receives money from grant programs for rural schools, according to Aziz. This money could be put towards covering the cost of a full-time counsellor, he said.

Without school-provided counselling, many Valemount students may be left with no other option, worries local parent Isla Jackman. 

“We don’t have other privatized counselling opportunities, or ways to do really fun activities that kids are having through schools,” Jackman said. “If they start cutting all those extras, we really miss out in the rural area. That’s where we lose out on equity.”

Jackman worries that by reducing rural school funding, the District will lose hard-won progress in making education more inclusive and accessible to rural students. For example, the enhancement of supports for Indigenous students was an important step in improving inclusivity, she said. She also remembers a time where families were forced to move away from Valemount to communities with more access to mental health care, and says this has become a less common occurrence since counselling services were introduced.

“This feels like we’re taking five steps backwards,” Jackman said. “I would hope that they don’t want to go back to that, and yet here they are chopping us again in a way that doesn’t feel fair or equitable.”

Jackman’s concerns were echoed in a letter sent to the District board by Jennifer Scheller and Stefanie Han, board members of the Parent Advisory Councils for Valemount Secondary School and Elementary School, respectively. 

“As residents of rural areas, we face unique challenges, including limited access to professional services such as school counsellors, support workers, and distance education resources,” Scheller and Han wrote. “These services are not just amenities for us; they are essential lifelines for our students’ mental health and future prospects in education and employment.”

Scheller and Han added that the District’s information on the budget lacks a detailed breakdown of spending, though it includes pie charts that lump costs into broad categories. They requested a clear breakdown of administrative costs, transportation costs, and clarification on how much funding is designated for rural schools versus how much is actually sent to the schools.

The Goat reached out to Scheller and Han for comment but received no response.

Jackman said she found information about the budget hard to interpret, as well. She said the District should have better communication with rural schools, especially given that Valemount school employees all serve a crucial role in the community.

“It just makes me so sad. We’ve got the best teachers and the best principals that we could possibly ask for at this point,” Jackman said. “To lose money is like kicking the legs out from under something so good.”

Jackman hopes other parents will email the District with their concerns, and reach out to MLA Shirley Bond. 

In a statement sent to The Goat, Bond said she is concerned about the potential reductions to rural school funding in the District. She says she’s been in touch with Valemount’s mayor and Superintendent Aziz.

“It is important for our residents to have their voices heard and I urge them to write to the School Board and the Minister of Education. I will be writing to the Minister as well,” Bond wrote. “It shouldn’t matter where you live in British Columbia, students deserve the best educational opportunities possible.”

Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson is also advocating for the counsellor position to be retained.

“Rural areas lack access to mental health services due to geographical isolation and fewer resources,” Torgerson said in an email to The Goat. “Having a counsellor in Valemount provides accessible support for students who may not otherwise have access to mental health care and allows for early identification and intervention, which can prevent more severe problems from developing later in life.”

Torgerson added that he is in ongoing discussions with Superintendent Jameel Aziz about the issue.

Bob Thompson, school board trustee member for the Robson Valley, confirmed that the District is considering cutting the counsellor position.

“We’re hoping we can find some way not to do that, because they’ve made a tremendous difference in both schools in Valemount,” he said.

Thompson added that the District is prioritizing classroom funding as it considers reductions.

“One thing we are dedicated to doing is keeping the cuts out of the classroom, so the cuts come from other places like the school district office,” he said. “It’s not a good situation. But our goal this year is to make the cuts necessary so that we don’t have to make any more cuts next year.”

Thompson said he is doing his best to advocate for rural schools, alongside Mackenzie trustee Rachael Weber. However, he added that districts across the province are feeling the pinch of inflation, and every school in School District 57 is likely going to see cuts.

“Nobody likes it, there are complaints everywhere,” he said of the proposed cuts. “And we do have to come up with another $330,000 [to balance the budget] and we have to find some place to cut it from, so we’re not done yet.”

Thompson encourages Robson Valley residents to contact him at [email protected], or by calling the phone number listed on the District’s website, where calls can be directed to him.

Aziz said more details on the budget may be provided at the school board’s next public meeting on the 14th.

“It’s a very, very challenging situation that we’re in. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the needs of students within the community do not warrant high levels of counselling,” Aziz said. 

“We are providing information to the board so they can make the decision in a balanced and fair way on what it is that needs to be eliminated from the budget.”

The Goat reached out to the principals of both Valemount Elementary and Secondary School for comment, but did not receive a response.