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Per student funding is the issue, says Qualicum school board chair

School District 69 (Qualicum) is considering closing four elementary schools, "because we didn't do it last time," according to superintendent Rollie Koop, but it's not all bad news.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, The NEWS recently sat down with Koop, board chair Lynette Kershaw and secretary treasurer Erica Bailey.

A facilities review in the fall of 2010 suggested that declining enrolment and the resulting declining funds meant school closures would likely be necessary.

Kershaw and three other new board members were elected the following year after what was widely seen as a poorly-handled process in which people at public meetings said they were taken by surprise about proposed closures.

As a result, the school closures stalled until late last year when a new staff report was released recommending the district be reconfigured to a Kindergarten to Grade 7 and Grade 8-12 model, eliminating middle schools.

The complete reshuffling would enable the closure of four elementary schools (Qualicum Beach, Parksville, Winchelsea and French Creek) to adjust for 2,000 empty spaces, saving $1.2 million a year in operational costs.

That would save a good portion of an annual deficit estimated at nearly $600,000 this year and increasing by almost that much in each of the next five years if nothing is done, leading to a $3.6 million shortfall in 2018/19.

"With the number of school districts looking at closing schools it is clear the per student funding isn't working," Koop said of the underlying issue, but none of the district officials believe the provincial government is looking at changing that any time soon.

The other underlying issue is the declining enrolment Bailey said, pointing to circulated reports of the number of students dropping 30 per cent from 5,629 in 1999 to 3,960 this year and projected to drop another couple hundred before it even starts to rebound in 15 years.

So it might be surprising to hear the superintendent describe this as "a really exciting time to be in education."

"It used to be you didn't use schools and business in the same sentence," agreed Kershaw, who said that while the focus has been on the physical buildings, schools are rapidly changing to meet the needs of students in the modern age.

She said the current system is still based in the agrarian world of 100 years ago when parents just wanted somewhere to send kids for the day.

She also listed off numerous programs that take students out of the schools to study at Vancouver Island University (VIU) for dual high school and college credits, learning trades or search and rescue skills or generally out learning in the real world.

"With all this, do we need the buildings in the same way," asked Koop who described the move toward more "individualized learning" as both bringing students into the community more, and bringing the community into the schools to take advantage of available resources.

He added that while education isn't just about the numbers, more up to date models of education could in fact be less expensive per student.

"It's about a better use of money, not cheaper," Kershaw said.

They pointed to many multi-use examples of local facilities like the Oceanside Health Centre, Family Place and Parksville Civic and Technology Centre which Koop said the school board actually benefits from sharing with the City of Parksville, VIU and the library.

"The Ministry (of Education) is doing as much as it can to remove barriers and we are encouraged to look at things more creatively," said Koop.

While they said there are limited things they can do with empty space in a school that is still being used, the options are wide open in repurposed school buildings.

Kershaw stressed that the board is open and actively looking for creative ideas not just about how to save or make money with their buildings, but in the ongoing changes to education.

The next meeting in the district's 90-day public consultation period is Thursday, March 13 at 7 p.m. in the Oceanside Middle School library.

Check the 'Facilities Review' tab at

www.sd69.bc.ca for many documents and reports.

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