School District 79 trustee Mike McKay

School District 79 considers program changes and school closures

School district representatives outlined potential solutions to the anticipated budget deficit during a public meeting in Chemainus.

Administrators from School District 79 met with members of the public Saturday, March 2 in Chemainus to discuss potential solutions to SD79’s anticipated budget deficit for 2013.

Official trustee Mike McKay, superintendent Joe Rhodes and secretary-treasurer Bob Harper spoke to parents and teachers at a public meeting held at Chemainus Secondary School. McKay, Rhodes and Harper informed those present of possible school closures and program changes intended to help SD79 cope with an anticipated budget deficit of $3.7 million.

Rhodes said the deficit will result from a combination of decreased enrolment, increased MSP premiums and pension costs, a wage increase for employees and the loss of “a million bucks” the district will not receive next year once its funding protection runs out.

Seeking solutions to their fiscal dilemma, the district embarked on a 90-day public consultation process Feb. 6 to determine how to cut costs without compromising services to students. The district is considering closing or combining schools in each of its four zones as one possible solution to its budget woes.

Proposed changes to north-zone schools include closing Crofton Elementary School — a new building completed in 2009 — and housing both a middle school and high school under one roof at Chemainus Secondary School (CSS).

Crofton, Chemainus and Thetis Island elementary schools currently offer programming for students in kindergarten through Grade 7. One proposal — labelled “Option One” in SD79’s Long Range Facilities Plan — Phase One Report (LRFP-1) — calls for the closure of Crofton’s elementary school and the scaling back of Chemainus and Thetis Island schools to K-5 for the 2013-14 school year. Option One would see north-zone students in grades 6-8 taught at a new middle school housed under the same roof as a high school catering to students in grades 9-12. Both of those schools would be operated out of CSS.

Enrolment in north-zone schools has declined steadily since 2007 and now stands at 715 students. According to LRFP-1, enrolment will continue to decline until it reaches a new plateau in the low 600s by 2016.

Option One would cut the enrolment capacity in north-zone schools from 1,143 to 961 spaces, reducing expenditures by $350,000 per year, said Rhodes.

McKay acknowledged that cuts and closures would impact affected communities disproportionately — “it will not be a matter of an equal distribution of pain,” McKay said — but he pledged to adopt a strategy that “is something we can sustain and that will support kids.”

Parents expressed mixed reactions to the proposed changes.

Katie Robertson lives in Crofton, but her children attend Chemainus Elementary School. Nevertheless, she questioned the logic of closing the Crofton school and expressed concern for the long-term impact the closure would have on the community.

“That’s a brand-new school and it’s full,” Robertson said, “and it’s one of the only things thriving in the town as it is. The school and the mill are what make the town. With a 60-per-cent retirement rate coming up at the Catalyst mill, that’s going to bring in new families. If there’s no elementary school there, people will be less likely to live in Crofton, and they’ll simply commute to the mill instead.”

Robertson was also worried about the potential consequences of integrating younger kids into a school co-attended by high school students.

“My biggest concern is how you would separate the children,” Robertson said, referring to the proposal to house a middle school and high school within the current CSS building. “I would be concerned with how well it’s implemented. They aren’t willing to tell us anything about what would be implemented until after they’ve already made the decision. I don’t feel that we’re given enough information to tell them our opinion when they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

SD79 will host a public forum for all four zones Tuesday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Cowichan Secondary School to allow the public to offer comment directly to McKay.

Written feedback will be accepted by SD79 until May 7. Comments can be submitted to district administration via their website or by e-mail at restructure2013@sd79.bc.ca. An official decision will be made at a board of education meeting May 15.

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