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Port Renfrew one step closer to new school

A long-term plan involving a full K-12 school system is seen as key to Port Renfrew’s future.

A replacement for Port Renfrew’s aging elementary school is a step closer following a funding announcement by the province, the Pacheedaht First Nation and the Sooke school district.

It’s part of a broader dream that would also include a Pacheedaht-run middle and secondary school, one that would mean the tiny community’s older students would no longer have to endure a three-hour round trip to schools in Sooke, 75 kilometres away.

That long-term plan is seen as a key to Port Renfrew’s future, the idea being that a community with a full K-12 school system would be much more attractive to families and businesses considering locating there.

On Friday, the province said it would commit $10 million for a new elementary school, contingent on the Sooke district coming up with an acceptable business plan. School board chair Ravi Parmar said one will be submitted within a month or two.

Should the province give quick approval to that plan, construction could begin in early 2024 on a building to replace 53-year-old Port Renfrew Elementary, which Parmar described as one of the most seismically unsafe schools in B.C.

Still to be determined is the fate of a Pacheedaht request for $24 million in federal funding to build an adjacent Grade 6 to 12 school with a capacity for 80 students. The proposal, which has the backing of the school board, would see the new middle-secondary school run by the Pacheedaht, not the Sooke district.

It would mean an end to the need for families to either move, turn to distance education, or see their children board the bus to Sooke each day. Currently, 15 to 20 students make the trip, 1 1/2 hours each way. Parmar said he rode the bus along the twisting, turning road in October. “It made my stomach sick,” he said.

About 300 members of the Pacheedaht nation live in Port Renfrew, including about 100 on the reserve. Port Renfrew itself has a population of 350 to 400. The elementary school has an enrolment of just 19.

School districts whose footprint takes in small, remote communities often struggle with the question of how many students are needed to justify the cost of building and operating a school.

“A school really is the heart of a community,” Parmar said. Having a K-12 system can help a town thrive, important in a place like Port Renfrew which, he noted, some believe has the potential to become a tourism magnet like Tofino.

On the flip side, taking the school away from a rural community can change its nature, even lead to its demise. That’s why Vancouver Island districts agonized before closing schools in places like Echo Bay, Union Bay and Quatsino. The one in tiny Woss, halfway between Port McNeill and Sayward, limped along with single-digit enrolment before closing in 2016, when the number of students would have been down to three. Enrolment at Youbou’s Yount Elementary plunged to 13 by the time it closed in 2007.