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St. Joseph’s catholic school in Chemainus closing after more than 50 years

Enrollment numbers fall short, resulting in the decision no one wanted
There’s been a rather glum feeling around St. Joseph’s School following the announcement of its closure, from left, by the likes of staffers Sue Hunter, Debbie Cadwallader and John Battie and student Diego Guevara Mix. (Photo by Don Bodger)

When school’s out June 27 at St. Joseph’s Elementary Catholic School in Chemainus, it will be permanent.

Despite a concerted effort by the school community through fundraising ventures to keep it afloat, the decision to close St. Joseph’s eventually came down to enrollment. The school currently has 84 students and there was an anticipated 70 for 2018-19.

“We needed to be in that 90-95 range,” said Beverly Pulyk, the Superintendent for Island Catholic Schools.

Staff and students were notified about the pending closure last week.

“The decision was made on June 4 when we formally made the decision,” noted Pulyk. “It became apparent to us the week before when we tried to balance the budget for next year we had not anticipated for the enrollment to be at 70 students.”

The school has endured financial challenges for many years, but three conditions were set out for continuing, combined with an ability to start condensing the debt. Requirements included: balancing the budget, being able to operate in the black and then be subject to a year-end formal review.

“The community rallied this year and did a tremendous job in terms of meeting the conditions that were established,” Pulyk indicated. “The next challenge always becomes the following year.

“There’s lots of committed people. The key is you have to have the students. Nobody ever wants to close a school. It was with a very heavy and sad heart we had to make that decision.”

“Everybody worked really hard,” said principal Keefer Pollard. “We know everybody did their very best.”

Pulyk praised Pollard for his efforts at the school in his first year since coming from Queen of Angels Elementary in Duncan.

“Keefer has been solid rock in terms of supporting the community at this time,” she said. “That was never the intent at the beginning the school wouldn’t be open next year.”

It wasn’t that long ago St. Joseph’s was celebrating an apparent reprieve that it would remain open, but that all changed in the final evaluation process.

“I have the calendar for next year drafted,” Pollard said. “It kind of caught us off-guard.”

The school was established in 1964 and has maintained a tradition of long-time members on its teaching staff. They were extremely distraught about the announcement.

There’s some pretty shocked and upset people,” said John Battie, 51, of Ladysmith, who’s taught at the school for 27 years. “You don’t realize how good you have it till you lose it.”

Teachers got the news last Monday, Battie said, following a visit from Pulyk and Bishop Gary Gordon of the Catholic Diocese of Victoria.

Debbie (Redding) Cadwallader has 20 years experience teaching at the school. She started in 1987 and, after time off for maternity, returned to the school the last 15 years.

“We did not see it coming because we thought we were going to stay open,” Cadwallader said. “It just feels like the loss of a family and a home.”

The atmosphere of the school will be missed by students and staff alike, she added.

“I think there’s a need and a place for small schools. It’s unfortunate this area will no longer have that. We’ve just been going through madness and sadness and all stages of grief.”

Students will be accommodated at Queen of Angels School in Duncan, Pulyk said. It has a current enrollment around 370 for next year and a capacity of 450.

Permanent teachers will also be offered positions and, quite likely, part-timers as well.

Some parents, particularly those in Ladysmith, are opting for other choices for their children such as going into the public school system at Ladysmith Primary or Intermediate.

“Our first concern is getting the staff and the students placed,” said Pollard. “That’s looking very hopeful.”

“It’s a new beginning for people as they merge families, as they amalgamate with Queen of Angels,” Pulyk noted.

It’s a bit premature to determine what will happen to the land and buildings on the St. Joseph’s site, she concluded.

The announcement of St. Joseph’s Elementary School’s closure caught everyone off-guard. It’s been in operation since 1964. (Photo by Don Bodger)
St. Joseph’s School sign at the bottom of Elm Street. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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