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School closures an option in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Big changes are coming for the local school district and a meeting Thursday was meant to start that conversation with the public.

Tasked with finding $2 million in savings over the next three years, local school trustees will have to make a decision in January in order to affect this year's budget, and it could mean school closures, amalgamation, or reconfiguring schools. Trustees will be presented with a report that will be based on meetings, public and otherwise, scheduled in the next two months.

Only one community member showed up Thursday night to what the district dubbed 'Toward a Future for Schools Conversation,' along with some district staff, trustees, a reporter and a staff relative. That community member was Scott Tanner, a town councillor in Qualicum Beach. It was the first meeting relating to budget, enrollment, facilities and programs/services in a series of meetings hosted by the school district.

District staff will work on the report, instead of having outside consultants come in, and acting superintendent of schools Rollie Koop will present it to the board by January 21. A decision will be made by trustees by January 28, whether they decide to act on the recommendations or not. At that point a 90-day consultation period would begin.

That would take the board to April 29 and at that point the board would act on a potential motion.

Koop said the challenge facing the district is trying to continue to provide high quality learning, which was identified in the nearly-complete strategic plan, while dealing with declining enrollment. In the province schools get funding per pupil, and even with funding protection that means the district will see 1.5 per cent less funding each year.

A common misconception held by residents in the province, and what that provincial government maintains, is that there is more money than ever before in the education sector, and less students, so districts should be able to cope, Koop said. But that’s not the whole truth, he suggested.

“The unspoken piece of that is our costs are increasing exponentially, and the dollar doesn’t go as far as it did a year ago.”

Although the local school district has managed to balance its budget in the past, it is becoming more difficult every year, and Koop and Secretary Erica Bailey suggested what has worked in the past will no longer suffice. Currently the district is spending $583,000 more a year than it is bringing in, said Bailey.

Ninety per cent of expenditures in the district go to salaries and benefits and the 10 per cent left over makes things tight, Koop said.

“So it’s no longer what can we cut, we’re not at that point, it’s what are we going to choose to spend the dollars on,” Koop said.

Enrollment in the district was at its highest in 1999 with 5,629 students, while current enrollment sits at 3,960. Projections show that enrollment will continue to decline until 10 years from now, in 2023, when enrollment will closely match what it is today, and then continue to rise.

The problem is the same amount of schools that were being used in 1999 are being used in the district today, so schools aren’t using anywhere near their capacity, a number of them using only around 60 per cent.

Although when faced with school closures, some districts close facilities that are past their useful lives, Koop said, this district doesn’t have any of those.

“In the last review there were two schools that required some upgrades, both of them have received significant upgrades,” he said, adding, “we’ve got great buildings.”

Attendees at the meeting on Thursday broke into smaller groups and discussed concerns and made suggestions about the topics. Some ideas that came up to save or make money included sharing space with other agencies, cost sharing with municipalities and renting out facility space to the community.

Concerns included making changes in the district while maintaining services to students, and whether distance learning is better for students or simply saves money.

The next Toward a Future for Schools meeting takes place at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at Oceanside Middle School and the topics will shift to teaching and learning.

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