Possible school closures in 2013 are only the tip of the iceberg as School District 27 looks to trim its budget over the next four years.
Speaking to city council Tuesday evening, Superintendent Mark Thiessen said declining student numbers and reduced funding of approximately $900,000 a year by the Ministry of Education until 2016, is forcing the school board to make some tough decisions.
“We may only be at the beginning of looking at lots of ways to continue to cut spending in our district. The board knowing it has to make up a shortfall began a planning process late last winter and began bringing its plan — Initial Options Report— forward to the public in September,” Thiessen said.
Potential plans for Williams Lake include proposed closures of Kwaleen, Glendale and Wildwood elementary schools and the reconfiguration of the two high schools into one high school grades 7-12 with two campuses.
No decisions have been made yet, he emphasized. The board will not make its final decisions until Jan. 22.
“In order to fund schools properly, you need more student numbers and more enrolment in buildings,” Thiessen said.
Capacity is a big one.
“If a district wants funding for new schools or projects, the ministry has to see that you are using the schools in your school district as well as you possibly can. If we have half empty buildings that we’re using and we go to the ministry and say we need a new school or would like to put a big renovation on a school, they won’t give us the time of day.”
By closing three schools, students will go to other schools and fill the remaining schools to a 93 per cent capacity.
Thiessen was joined by trustees Sheila Boehm, Jackie Austin and Doug Neufeld, who represent the Williams Lake schools.
Neufeld said School District 27 is one of the richest funded districts per student because of its higher rate of vulnerable students and was under a funding protection program until now.
Coun. Sue Zacharias said the report makes sense because of the economic challenges, however, admitted she was worried at first about the grade 7 -12 configuration and wasn’t sure what she thinks about it.
“The loss of any school, particularly in the smaller bedroom communities, is tough. I have children and nieces and nephews that went to Wildwood school through the late 70s and early 80s and the school population was in the hundreds then and now there are 32.
“I support a lot of the ideas that are in the report and know that change is inevitable. We have to be caring abut the community and how it impacts everybody,” Zacharias said.
Echoing Zacharias, Coun. Geoff Bourdon said the only thing he’s heard serious opposition to is the grades 7-12 configuration and he wondered if the board had researched that grade scenario in other communities.
Neufeld said it’s not an uncommon configuration in North America.
“There is no true best configuration in education and there is no one configuration that has the best academic outcomes. Something that is recurrent in the literature is the minimized transitions. In our community we have some vulnerable students and we’re probably one of the most vulnerable districts in the province,” Neufeld said.
The First Nations graduation percentage two years ago was 37 per cent and the overall graduation per cent is 67 per cent, he added.
“As we went into it we were very mindful to only have one transition for those kids. If you have a transition at grade 9/10 it can be an exit point for students.”
It has been determined, he added, that the best configuration is actually grades K-12.
“We have heard from the public that they are really worried about the grade 7-12 configuration and we are taking that very seriously. We will have to accommodate that and make sure the grade 7s are treated like grade 7s and we have an appropriate program in place” Neufeld.
Configurations don’t matter as much as making sure transitions are done in a healthy way and that good teachers and programs are in place, Thiessen added.
On Dec. 11, the board will be presented with all of the feedback gathered to date regarding the Initial Options report.
“All the input we’ve had will be summarized and presented at that meeting and from there we will have three open board meetings where we as a board will debate and talk about rationale, make recommendations or changes,” said Austin. Two of those meetings will take place in Williams Lake and one in 100 Mile House.
The public will not be able to comment during the meeting, but the policy, introduced in September, allows for 30 minutes at the beginning of the meeting for members of the public to comment on agenda items, and 30 minutes at the end of the meeting to comment on anything that is not on the agenda, Austin said.
Mayor Kerry Cook said many people have contacted her office with concerns about the proposed closures and reconfiguration.
“My real question is future growth and potential. If something were to change would we be prepared?” she asked.
Neufeld said the board’s job is to “educate the kids we have now, not those that might come in the future. We can’t jeopardize what we have now to set aside for the future. We can plan for growth, and if those kids materialize then we can be in a position to ask for a new school, but only if that happens.”
There’s not much room at Kwaleen or Glendale schools for expansion, whereas Marie Sharpe could take 450 students, Neufeld said.
The board would love it to level out, however the district needs an active growth of 200 students a year to stop the decline, Boehm added.