Friday, April 20, 2007

Michael Brydon: SONG's feasible and concrete plans

The following was submitted to the editor of The Herald on April 20, 2007, in response to comments made by the chair of the School District 67 board:

A diverse collection of Penticton and area residents calling itself SONG (Save Our North Gym) formed a loose coalition in early March to pursue a simple goal: encourage the City of Penticton to acquire the gym and auditorium made surplus by the Pen-Hi reconstruction and convert the buildings to community facilities. To make City Hall’s job a bit easier, several members of SONG, who can accurately be described as experts, took time to perform a reasonably detailed analysis of the feasibility of saving both buildings (estimated cost: roughly $1.2 million) and map out alternative configurations for the tennis courts and bus loop so that the buildings could be left standing without materially affecting the operation of the new school. We were naturally thrilled when The Okanagan Saturday reported on March 10th that the City of Penticton had reversed its earlier position on saving the buildings and was approaching the school board to discuss conversion of both to community use. However, according to a story in the Western News on March 19th, the board of School District 67 declined to consider any proposal from the city that included the gymnasium. To use the words of the school board chair, Larry Little, “It is still our property and it is still our decision.” In a recent (April 19th) clarification of the board’s position, Mr. Little stated that “no person or group has come up with a feasible, concrete plan to save the building.” I find this statement troubling given the public record. How can the board take the gym “off the table” (Mr. Little’s words) and then argue that no group has come forward? No less a group than the City of Penticton came forward—the school board refused to listen.

I also find Mr. Little’s statement insulting to those in this community who have volunteered their valuable time to come up with a better plan. Members of SONG have contacted individual school board trustees and alerted them to existence of grassroots support for saving both buildings. Trustees know about our website ( which outlines our proposal, summarizes news reports, lists supporting organizations (17 and counting), and provides a sample of recent letters critical of the decision to demolish the buildings. The concerns raised by Mr. Little in the April 19th story are also addressed on the website. For example, we report that several employees of the city’s parks and recreation department have told us straight-out that current demand for prime-time gym space in this town exceeds capacity.

We understand that the school district does not want (read: cannot afford) to save the existing gym and auditorium for its own use. However, the school board must understand that these surplus buildings—which, to clarify, belong to taxpayers, not the school board—are unique and valuable assets that we as citizen-owners may want to hang on to. Clearly, the school board has a limited educational mandate and may not always be able to contribute to our larger community goals. However, this does not give the board license to actively obstruct the efforts of the mayor and council (also democratically elected) in their efforts to achieve these goals.

We recognize that our proposal involves changes and these changes will be inconvenient to school planners at this late stage. We apologize for not submitting our proposal earlier; however many members of SONG have been busy working, raising our children and grandchildren, and attending to our lives. Fortunately, one school board trustee, Walter Huebert, has recently written some excellent articles about the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada and the emergence of responsible government in this country. Perhaps Mr. Huebert is willing give the other elected trustees a brief refresher on the inconvenient exigencies of democracy.

Update: No feasible, concrete plans?

According School District 67 chair Larry Little, as quoted in an article on Page A4 of The Herald on 19 April, 2007, "In spite of the number of comments and concerns being raised, no person or group has come up with a feasible and concrete plan to save the [gym]."

Mr. Little goes on to deny that there is a shortage of gym space in Penticton: "While some letters to the board and local newspaper write about the need for having the additional gym space in the community, Little pointed out there is gym space in the currently available not being used. 'We have elementary school, we have another secondary school here in Princess Margaret and we also have middle schools,' he said. 'A lot of time these facilities are not being used, they're not utilized on a weekend...that space is available.' Little says the school board encourages those looking for space to phone the school district or check in with the community centre to inquire what facilities are available."

My editorial comments:

First, it appears that Mr. Little has forgotten about the meeting with the City of Penticton in which the mayor expressed an interest in saving both buildings as community facilities (this meeting is also referenced in the the school board minutes—item 6)

Second, I cannot agree with Mr. Little's assertions about excess gym capacity. SONG members have consulted with several employees of the city's parks and recreation department and we have heard a consistent message: demand for the gym space exceeds capacity. Perhaps the source of the discrepancy between Mr. Little and those who actually schedule gym-based programs has arisen because the school board considers gym time and space to be fungible. That is, they assume that one hour in the Uplands Elementary School gym on a Sunday morning is interchangeable with one hour in the Pen-Hi gym on a Wednesday evening. As many have already pointed out, and I have argued in a previous posting, the Pen-Hi gym is a unique space. That it sits empty in non-prime-time hours is not really the point—time and place matter. The school buses that Mr. Little appears to hold in such high regard are also empty on Sunday mornings, but I do not see the school board sending all the "excess" buses to the crusher. Now that I think of it, the average utilization of our fire trucks seems low too...

In addition, the school board seems to think that demand occurs in a vacuum. It does not. Demand is a function of price, which is a function of supply. Increase the supply of gym space, make it easier for both the city's parks and rec department and community groups to schedule events, and demand that we never imagined will materialize (see induced demand). It is sort of like, "Build it and they will come." Except, in this case, it is already built.

Dodi Morrison: Community should sound off over Pen High buildings

The following appeared in the April 18, 2007, edition of The Western News. It was reprinted in The Herald on 26 April, 2007.

I have become somewhat known in the area, perhaps mostly as an annoyance. At any rate, people speak to me on the street, at the theatre, at clubs and other gatherings and are very willing to express what they feel.

In addition, I no longer drive, and cab drivers, a varied lot, speak frankly. For some time my question has been “What do you think of the idea of taking down that auditorium ?” Lately, since I hear both buildings could easily “stand alone,” I add “and that gym?”

The answer never changes. It’s a variation on: “What a mad idea! Why do they want to tear down two such useful buildings — and for a parking lot?” I have yet to hear anyone say “What a great idea!” or even, “I don’t have an opinion.”

Some time ago I wrote city council and said I feared there would be rioting in the streets if they did that. Recently I wrote the school board asking if they really believed it was a good example for our young people if we tore down perfectly valid, useful buildings because we could not find $2 million — out of all the millions being spent on the new South Okanagan Event Centre — to do the necessary repairs and upgrading.

Apparently there are endless uses for the gymnasium (renovated not long ago). But there will be two gyms in the new school. There is no replacement for the auditorium. Yes, there are churches — but none will hold the 750 Community Concert members, or the rising numbers Justin Glibbery is attracting to his new support-the-students series. (Both are enthusiastically attended, and can expect new members from the new condos in town.) Megan Rutherford has explained how often and well the auditorium is used for other purposes. She kept track, since last September, as you may have read. The list is long.

And everyone knows that no church has the acoustic perfection of that auditorium. Artists have praised it as “the best in Western Canada.” The sloping floor makes for good viewing — and there are no stairs to climb.

According to the census, Penticton’s population is 33,000 (approximately). If it takes 10 years to complete the event centre, will it cost about $33,000? Go figure. After that it is paid for, we can start on that dream replacement for Pen High’s auditorium. But obviously, not before. And many of us will never use the event centre. Sadly, hockey has become too violent for the taste of many, and many won’t want to attend rock concerts. Is this fair?

Petitions are around the city (they need to be more widely distributed, so look for them). Meetings will be held — some are already under way. Meetings were held when this first came up, but were subverted by a few who still held out that “a replacement will be found ...”

Let us hope these few naysayers will now reflect carefully about what they are denying this city.

Letters do matter. They are read and counted. We need plenty of letters — and copies sent to the school board and the council as well as the papers. Stop telling me what you think! You can write it in three lines and still be effective. If you have already written, write again — and say so. And we need support from neighbouring communities. They love our auditorium too.

Three lines. Take up your pen.