Closing Wildwood elementary debated at length

Trustees will decide Tuesday whether to go ahead with the proposal to close Wildwood

One of the tougher issues school trustees will address at their Initial Options Report decision meeting tonight is whether to go ahead with the proposal to close Wildwood elementary school.

The Initial Options Report proposes to close Wildwood Elementary School and consolidate its student population with Cataline Elementary School in September.

The school is currently operating as a Kindergarten to Grade 3 school.

The complexity of the Wildwood situation came to light during open discussion by trustees at a special board meeting Thursday, Jan. 17 to continue discussions on the Initial Options Report started at the special open board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 15.

At both meetings trustees discussed the report options in light of input from the public consultation process and new reports from staff on items such as updated enrolment figures.

In efforts to meet Ministry of Education budget constraints the Initial Options Report proposes closing and consolidating Wildwood, Kwaleen and Glendale elementary schools with other schools in Williams Lake and making the remaining elementary schools in Williams Lake Kindergarten to Grade 6 schools.

Grade 7s would be elevated to a new one school/two campus secondary school comprised of Williams Lake and Columneetza secondary schools.

Low enrolment and resulting financial inefficiency were reasons for choosing Wildwood, Kwaleen and Glendale for closure.

During discussion on the Wildwood closure School District 27 Secretary-treasurer Bonnie Roller  said the student population at the school is projected to rise and that it would take 10 more students returning to Wildwood next year for operating costs to break even.

According to Roller’s enrolment report  Wildwood  (Kindergarten to Grade 3) had 25 students in 2012 and currently has 31 students. Enrolment is projected to rise to 34 students by 2022.

School District 27 Trustee Joyce Cooper said many of the families living in the Wildwood catchment area chose to send their children to schools in Williams Lake over the years because of the ongoing uncertainty about whether the school would be closed.

She said she felt that if there was some certainty the school would stay open parents living in the catchment area would send their children to the school.

Until visiting Wildwood school, Cooper said she didn’t realize the great extent to which programs at the school support First Nations students.

She said one of the goals of the district is to improve graduation rates for First Nations students so it didn’t make sense to close a school that is providing a solid foundation for First Nations students that is also meeting cultural needs.

Trustee Doug Neufeld noted that since Wildwood had been included in the Initial Options Report, the same criteria should be applied for closing Wildwood as for closing Glendale and Kwaleen elementary schools.

He said he traveled Highway 97 to Prince George a lot this past year and it only took nine minutes to travel from the Wildwood store to Williams Lake, which wouldn’t add a great deal of time to the commute for the Wildwood students if they were bused to Cataline.

Trustee Sheila Boehm noted that the Wildwood situation is different from the situation at Kwaleen and Glendale elementary schools. She said students come from as far north as McLeese Lake to attend Wildwood school.

Trustee Tanya Guenther noted Wildwood is also the district’s northern most elementary school.

Boehm and other trustees also expressed concerned about the lack of First Nations participation in the consultation process.

Cooper said it was her feeling that many of the First Nations people living in the catchment area hadn’t participated because they have been working to keep the school open for many years, and believed the decision to close the school had already been made and their input wouldn’t make a difference.

According to Roller’s updated enrolment and financial report closing Wildwood and sending the students to Cataline elementary would save the district $256,881 in salaries and benefits. Continuing savings after year two would be $139,232 per year.

She said the impact of losing the small communities grant currently received for Wildwood would be low because the district continues next year under Ministry of Education funding protection.

While not supporting the idea one way or the other, Trustee Jackie Austin noted that if Wildwood remained open then the Glendale balanced calendar program could fit into Cataline elementary annex without the use of portable classrooms.

The longest bus commute for one small group of students in the Wildwood catchment area is currently about 90 minutes but in an updated busing report Roller said the addition of a third bus run would reduce the longest commutes by 20 to 30 minutes.

There was also some discussion on an alternative option of keeping one or two Kindergarten classes operating at Wildwood elementary, rather than closing the school completely.