Local school board trustees have passed a motion that could ultimately see four elementary schools closed this summer.
Board Chair Lynette Kershaw told the large group of people at the meeting Tuesday night that the decision is not an easy one.
“This is an excruciating, difficult position to be in, and none of us are taking this lightly,” she said, adding that closing schools or amalgamating or reconfiguring schools is only a portion of what trustees have to do to balance their budget.
The schools slated for closure at this point are: Qualicum Beach Elementary, Parksville Elementary, Winchelsea Elementary in Parksville and French Creek Elementary in Coombs.
Although the motion passed unanimously to accept the recommendations to potentially close four schools, trustees made it clear that it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“If the motion passes it is not indicting that those four schools are gone,” said Kershaw. “It is indicating that this board recognizes that we have 2,000 extra spaces in our school system that we will not utilize for the foreseeable future, 10 to 15 years out, that’s not fiscally responsible to keep those facilities open.”
The passed motion means a 90-day public consultation period has begun. The recommendations also suggest reconfiguring the district to Kindergarten through Grade 7 and Grades 8 through 12 at the two high schools, eliminating middle schools.
Trustee Julie Austin voiced her concern at the Tuesday night board meeting about the decision to close French Creek Community School in Coombs and asked staff if they had considered certain options before putting it on their list for closures.
“This board had made a commitment to try and do everything we could to protect rural schools,” said Austin. “They really are a heart of a community, especially French Creek (Community School) — it’s 102 years old, they just celebrated the centennial.”
French Creek Community School is in one of the worse conditions in the district. Other considerations for closing it, the public heard last week, include the seismic upgrades needed and the fact that Errington Elementary, a newer school with lots of space available, is eight kilometers down the road. However, because it is a rural school, French Creek receives a government grant for operational costs, which means it only costs the district about $75,000 a year to run, plus maintenance costs, Austin said. She asked whether it could be designated a heritage building and possibly get some federal dollars to help keep it open.
Members of the public wrote questions down on paper Tuesday and they were answered by Kershaw, Koop and secretary treasurer Erica Bailey. One question asked what would happen if enrolment turned around like it did the in the 1990s and the schools became overcrowded. Koop said the software used to predict enrolment is very reliable, as agreed on by the public early on in the consultation process. He said although enrolment is cyclical, the district is in a much deeper trough than had been predicted some years back.
“That’s a function of some of the issues plaguing our communities in that we’re struggling to attract and retain young families, primarily as a result of the economic opportunities that are available,” said Koop.
Another person asked if there were increases for school board members on the horizon. Bailey responded that trustees haven’t had an increase in 12 years and wages are currently frozen for administration staff. Trustees currently make $9,720 and the board chair $12,960 annually.
Trustee Ross Milligan asked Bailey if trustees voted to accept the recommendations if they could still change which schools would be closing. And if they did alter the recommendations, would it start the 90-day consultation period over again? Bailey responded no, trustees weren’t committed to closing those particular schools and although they could push the end date of the 90-day consultation period (April 29), it wouldn’t start the process all over. However, the timelines were set out so that the potential closures could assist in balancing this school year’s budget, the public heard earlier, which is $1.3 million this year. The closures would come very close to helping balance the budget this year, Bailey said.
The closure of the four schools would save $1,230,000 annually with more than $7 million in savings of deferred maintenance annually. It would also address the 2,000 free spaces in schools as utilization would increase by 19 per cent in the district. A one-time cost to bring facilities up to speed, including the addition of playgrounds for young children, daycares and other adjustments would be a one-time cost of around $650,000.
Over the next five years, the district deficit is predicted to grow to $3.6 million.
Milligan said after hearing feedback from the public at consultation meetings, as well as results from the online survey, it is clear that the majority of people were in support of school closures.
“I think people recognize it’s the best of bad options, and if we don’t take money out of closing schools we’ll have to take money out of the classrooms,” said Milligan. “So we need to start going through this process, but realize in the end that we do have to close some schools.”
Bailey said it’s in everyone’s best interest to try and look for viable purposes for the closed buildings so they don’t stay empty and deteriorate.
Comments can be emailed to the school board at firstname.lastname@example.org. The first public consultation meeting will take place Feb. 12 at Springwood Middle School at 7 p.m. A schedule of upcoming meetings will be on the district website at www.sd69.bc.ca.