School District 20 – Facilities review rekindles big decisions

Castlegar and Rossland are expected to be down one school after this year as the board of trustees begins a facilities review this month.

As students file back into schools this week for another year of learning it will likely mark the back-to-school swan song for two School District 20 facilities slated for closure.

Both Castlegar and Rossland are expected to be down one school after this year as the Kootenay Columbia’s board of trustees begins a facilities review this month that could trim two buildings—and possibly the administration’s own office—out of its 11-school inventory.

During budget deliberations last spring the board passed a motion to undertake a facilities review in order to cover for yet another $600,000 budget funding shortfall.

SD20 board chair Darrel Ganzert said the district does have a long list of cuts to look at that are not school closures before they get to that stage this fall, but the facilities review is inevitable.

“We want to keep the school closures separate and do that, not for budgetary reasons, but for educational reasons to the extent we can,” he said during budget discussions. “It will be a lengthy process that we want public input on.”

But dropping enrolments across the district have spelled the death of school buildings, and could claim two more.

And with dropping enrolment comes a resultant drop in funding from the province, to the tune of $600,000 last year.

As a small rural district the area needs more funding to deal with dropping enrolment after block funding was introduced five years ago, replacing per-student funding, said Trail trustee Mark Wilson.

The board had written letters in the past to the Ministry of Education imploring them for the need for more money, he explained, to no avail.

“But you know what? At the end of the day we have to manage our house. We have to tighten our house up. I don’t blame them for not giving us any more money,” Wilson said.

He was adamant more should be done beyond the facilities review. He felt the board of nine should be cut to five trustees, and administration at the very top should be cut.

“We can make those cuts but we’ve chosen not to,” he said after the board’s last budget was passed in May. “And the reason we’ve chosen not to is that we have had a real political board here.”

In May a motion was passed to consider possible reconfiguration or closure of Castlegar area schools with a decision to be made by Dec. 31, 2012 and implementation in September, 2013.

Included in the consultations, but not limited to, are making Twin Rivers Elementary School kindergarten to Grade 7 and closing Castlegar Primary School, or combining Twin Rivers Elementary School and Castlegar Primary School to be one school with two physical campuses.

In addition the board will consider possible reconfiguration or closure of Rossland schools with a decision to be made by Dec. 31, 2012 and implementation in September, 2013.

The board will look at making Rossland Secondary School (RSS) kindergarten to Grade 12 and close MacLean Elementary, or make RSS kindergarten to Grade 9, close MacLean, and send RSS grade 10-12 students to J.L. Crowe Secondary in Trail.

The board could also make MacLean kindergarten to Grade 7, close RSS, and send RSS grade 8-12 students to J.L. Crowe.

Under the new funding formula from the province schools that are not maximized are bleeding money from the district, said Wilson. He said a kindergarten to Grade 12 school for Rossland made sense.

If the board had addressed that situation years ago the district would not be in the budget shortfall position they are in. Instead, he said, the cuts for the last three years have been to services, to the teachers, and to the quality of education.

One year ago he sent a letter, supported by two other trustees, to the Ministry of Education asking that the entire board be fired.

“We were not doing our jobs. The ministry would not touch the issue,” he said. “At one time it paid to put buildings ahead of jobs, but not now.”

Kootenay Columbia Teachers Union president Andy Davidoff said he expected the board will be cutting teachers again— two teacher-librarians and almost eight teachers—to save $4-500,000 in salaries next year because “they have not put on their list sufficient reconfigurations and such.

“We are not advocating for school closures, that is not what we are saying,” he explained, “but there are options that they don’t even have on the table to consider.”

Like the board office. Wilson wondered why SD20 had to rent a board office when there were vacant buildings across the district, pointing to Trail Middle School as the most likely spot for moving the office.

As well, one of the school district’s maintenance shops in Waneta is still owned by the district but is currently rented out after district maintenance was centralized and moved to Castlegar.

Wilson said the facilities review will also call into question the future of Trail Middle School—currently housing around 200 alternative education students.

“We have to tighten up our facility rope instead of just cutting services all of the time,” he said. “If we can do that, we can avoid cuts to the services and, ultimately, the students.”

The facilities review made perfect sense to Ministry of Education spokesperson Scott Sutherland.

“If you look at SD20 … you have 1,600 fewer students, how many fewer schools do you have? How many fewer teachers do you have?” he said.

In 2000-2001 Kootenay Columbia was a school district that had nearly 5,600 students. It is estimated that, next year, for the fourth year in a row, it will have less than 4,000—a decline of 30 per cent.

Enrolment has been declining steadily for the last decade while, over the same period, operating funding has gone up and down until about 2007/08 when SD20 became eligible for funding protection.

The protection meant the level of provincial funding stayed the same as enrolment dropped. However, because so many districts have seen declining enrolment, funding protection was getting to be a bit of a burden on the province.

So it was decided, in consultation with school districts, that last year funding limits would have to be scaled back—with 1.5 per cent the most a district could lose from their budget.

From 2000-2001 to 2012-2013 the per pupil funding in the Kootenay Columbia has gone from a little over $6,800 per pupil to over $9,000 per year (estimated), said Sutherland.

Even while enrolment declined, the amount of money per student has been increasing in SD20, and it is up 32 per cent, he said.

The government line aside, Ganzert said the issue of a funding shortfall won’t be something the board will throw back at the province—yet. He said a lot of the trustees are waiting to see if the facilities review will resolve the issue.

“It would be personally irresponsible to approach the government for more money because the first thing they would say is, ‘Cut a school.’ Now, do you want us to do that without public input?” he said.

If there are to be any school closures, Ganzert noted, people will know well in advance and they will have time to prepare for that eventuality.

The board begins meeting this month and they will have solutions coming up by December, and if they close any schools that will be put in place at the time so the following year there will be closures.