Dec 1,2006 - The NOW News

Eight schools on chopping block

By Simone Blais - Staff Reporter

Eight schools could close because of a lack of students after school trustees voted in favour of the declining enrolment measure Tuesday.

District 43 trustees held a special public meeting at Winslow Centre Tuesday to discuss declining enrolment. Secretary-treasurer Lorcan O'Melinn explained to the gallery that the district has 2,517 fewer students than in 2001.

But according to projections, based on in-house and consultant research, O'Melinn said enrolment is expected to drop by another 2,233 students in five years.

"We expect our enrolment to decline and it has been declining since 2001 when we hit our peak," he said. "It looks like we're declining at a faster rate than what was predicted in June 2005."

Slipping enrolment has been most evident at elementary schools, which saw 1,583 fewer students in the past five years. Middle schools saw a drop of 441 students, while secondary schools had 493 fewer students enrol, according to O'Melinn.

The result of that decline, he added, is elementary schools posting lower "utilization rates," or the percentage of how many students are enrolled in a school, versus the building's capacity.

He gave the example of Coronation Park Elementary, which can house 226 students, but has 86 students - only a 38-per-cent utilization. Moody Elementary enrolled 96 students this year, despite its capacity for 248 - recording 39-per-cent utilization. Out of the 316 possible student spaces, Vanier Elementary has 135 students, or a 43-per-cent utilization.

Projections show that, in 2008, those three elementary schools would be joined by six others in posting utilization rates of 50 per cent or lower, including: Millside (49 per cent), Baker Drive (48 per cent), Meadowbrook (50 per cent), Mountain View (40 per cent), Seaview (49 per cent) and James Park (50 per cent). By 2013, Mountain Meadows Elementary is projected to operate with a 45-per-cent utilization rate, and Central Elementary at 48 per cent.

At those utilization rates, the Ministry of Education won't approve new capital projects in the school district, O'Melinn said. And, as the ministry funds the district on a per-pupil basis, it's harder to offer programs and services at schools with less operating money.

O'Melinn's presentation wrapped up with a final recommendation: "As a result of declining enrolment and associated issues, staff recommends that trustees give consideration to closing some elementary schools."

Trustee Debra Burton moved the staff recommendation, with Trustee Brian Robinson seconding.

Trustee Keith Watkins took issue with closing schools as the sole option to addressing declining enrolment, and pushed instead for a long-term plan to address the lack of students.

"I think we need to take steps to reorganize our elementary schools," he said. "If the rationale is to close schools because of declining enrolment _ will we always be facing challenges of budgeting with another list of schools to close?

"Are we going to look at this again next year? Eighty-five per cent of our schools do not meet the guidelines of the Ministry of Education for 95 per cent (utilization rates). Are we doing it (closing schools) as part of a comprehensive program?"

Trustee Debra Burton said enrolment numbers speak for themselves.

"We can't get around the fact our enrolment is declining. That's no one's fault, that's the reality and we have to do something about it," she said. "It's the board's responsibility to act and that's the problem, that it hasn't been addressed."

Trustees voted in favour of considering school closures, with Watkins the lone opponent.

Chair Melissa Hyndes asked O'Melinn what the process of closing the schools would look consist of, and the secretary-treasurer presented three options.

"I like the idea of not delaying what I feel is the inevitable," Robinson said, just before moving the 2006-2007 option which would see a decision made in March and schools close as early as June 2007.

Trustees voted in favour of the earlier timeline, with Watkins and Trustee Holly Butterfield opposed.

When asked which elementary schools staff recommended be reviewed for closure, O'Melinn listed: Coronation Park, Moody, Vanier, College Park, Lincoln, Mountain View, Millside and Meadowbrook.

The gallery was told that, while closing all eight is unlikely, which schools will be selected for the closure vote will be decided by the end of February.

When question period came around, CUPE Local 561 president Dave Ginter wanted to know the reason why trustees wanted to close schools.

"I haven't heard that you're in a budget crunch or that you need money," he said.

"We always need money," Hyndes said. "There's lots of reasons, some of it is budgets, but it's the school's ability to offer programs, staffing, what kind of shape that facility is in _ I think it's a noble stand to take."

"You may think it's noble, you may think that," Ginter said. "Once you close those schools, they're gone. One board meeting tonight, and it (is decided) _ I don't think the deliberations that came out on closing schools just came out tonight."

Meetings at the eight selected schools will begin next week with senior staff at District 43. The next public board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 7.

published on 12/01/2006