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REPORTING · 26th October 2010
Walter McFarlane

UPDATE: Raw interview sound file attached below; Reid Nelson then Barry Pankhurst followed by Brent Spidel.

The school board met with the parents of students in Roy Wilcox this past week about the possible closure of the school and moving the students and staff to Nechako Elementary School. They were listening to their concerns so they could address them. In addition, the school board is reconfiguring the school into both a middle school for grades 7-9 and a high school for 10-12. They attempted to explain to the parents how this might work.

The school board met last week at the high school to discuss the middle school and they met on Monday at Roy Wilcox to discuss the closure. The reason for closing the school is because Roy Wilcox is the smallest of the three remaining elementary schools and closing Kildala is no longer considered an option.

Brent Spidel from the School District Administration explained there are currently 240 students at Roy Wilcox, 130 at Nechako, 204 at Kildala and approximately 600 kids at the high school. They have just over 1200 students. Last year, they were at 1300.

The District does not have the funding and this year they took money from the reserve in order to make their budget work. According to Spidel, this has to do with the need to fund programs for kids with special needs.

“The reality is that this year, we had a balanced budget, but the demand because of our special needs population and because of some composition issues, etc., we literally had to kill another $600,000 above what we have to meet the needs of the kids. Not the facility, not everything else but to meet the needs of the kids,” said Spidel.

“Kitimat finds itself in an interesting situation because it has so many identified special needs students. This is part in parcel in the fact that we have the Child Development Centre here so students before they enter the Kindergarten classroom have been tested and have been identified and we know, in Kitimat, that we have a huge number of special needs students. That is a major funding concern that a lot of people are trying to deal with at the board level,” said Reid Nelson, KDTA (Kitimat District Teachers Association) president.

It was explained how special needs children are not funded in the same manner as they used to be. Schools used to receive money to meet the needs of all the children. Now they are only funded for half of those special needs children.

“When you have a Minister of Education who talks about having a lot more money in education then there ever has been, that is not true. They twist the statistics,” said Nelson.

“We have challenges in funding in the terms of meeting the needs of our kids because a significant percentage of our population is special needs. We spend a significantly higher percentage of our block funding on meeting special needs students learning needs,” said Spidel.

This puts pressure on the School District because the parents want their kids to have the same opportunities which other students around the province have. Spidel stated the school board has not been forced to trim around the basic program just yet and with a common time table in the School District, there may be an option for students to learn through an online course.

”We need more money or we are going to do other things to other programs we might have to cut,” said School Board Chair, Barry Pankhurst. “With what we have, we are doing a good job. If we had more opportunities for the students, we could do a better job,”

Pankhurst expressed the youth are getting the basic education programs, but the School District does not have the amount of students to be able to offer the same programs which are being offered in the lower mainland. Still, students who graduate are very successful, claimed Pankhurst.

The Middle School Concept does not relate to the financial pressures. Pankhurst explained it will help grade 7 and 8 students acclimatize to the high school system. This separation would allow these students to adjust into their own peer group without the pressure of being with the older kids.

During his presentation, Spidel explained the cost savings of closing the school would be about $200,000 but explained this did not include the changes which needed to be made at Nechako to accommodate all the other students. Closing Roy Wilcox School would reallocate money from the school for other capital projects.

The School District officials stated there were things which still needed discussing including the transportation to Nechako. It is possible to bus some kids but not all of them. They also need to discuss the excess traffic at Nechako School, moving resources and whether the playground goes or stays.

Parents were not pleased with the news and asked questions about why this was happening. Questions involved the transport of youth, the quality of the education provided, the money involved and how the neighbourhood would change. Pankhurst himself tried to empathize with the parents as his grandchildren are, and would be going, to Roy Wilcox if the school remained open.

One parent asked if all the big projects coming to Kitimat would stimulate growth and allow them to keep the schools open. The board stated they do not anticipate families coming to Kitimat. In addition, there was enough room in the other schools to facilitate any new students. Spidel claimed that even the District of Kitimat expects the population to drop to 6000 people in the next two years.
The Board was asked what they were doing to have the funding formula changed. The response from Pankhurst was that the government is revamping the education system from Kindergarten to University with no explanation about how they are going to pay for it. “You are not going to believe what they are going to do,” said Pankhurst.

Members of the community who did not have children at Roy Wilcox were concerned that the White Sail neighbourhood would become a dead zone, where new families would not want to live. Another parent expressed her children were too young to go to school but she was worried about losing the neighbourhood playground.

The response was the same argument as is being used in Vancouver where parents were having the same problems. The response from the Ministry of Education is to save money and not keep under populated schools open. Pankhurst stated they had even invited the former Minister of Education to see Mount Elizabeth Secondary multiple times. They never came.

“Basically, it’s a lose / lose situation,” said Cathay Demello, chair of the Roy Wilcox Parent Advisory Committee. “It sounds like their going to close our school regardless and we understand that. Basically, there is no money and with the population dropping, it’s understandable, but it would be nice if we could benefit from something.”

The meeting was not well attended by parents, only half the chairs were full and parents left the meeting while it was still in progress.

The next meeting regarding the school closure is on November 29th. The School Board will make up their decision in December, yet the question remains: What services are parents willing to give up if Roy Wilcox was to remain open.

Sound extreme? There is still one unthinkable option left.

There is enough room for all the students in Kitimat to attend at MESS and close all the schools. The High School was designed for 1600 students. We asked: If with the way funding is being affected could a merge be inevitable?

“God, I hope not,” said Pankhurst. “Elementary kids should have the opportunity to enjoy their own school, they should be around their own peers and that is where they belong. They don’t belong in a high school building, they belong in their own elementary school where they feel comfortable and they feel safe.”
Parent of a special needs student
Comment by Cliff Madsen on 6th November 2010
In reading the recent letters on this topic there is enough good information pointing to the real problem, the government, it`s policies and its lack of funding for special needs programs. I feel that the heading on this story was inflammatory and didn't help direct public attention to the real issue and probably served to further alienate special needs in the eyes of those who are ignorant or indifferent to the unique challenges these students face.

There is another story which needs to be followed up on and that is what our elected school board officials have done to deal with the special needs in our District.

On March 1, 2006 I attended a public Board meeting and made an eight page submission on this very issue and more. I asked for specific actions to be taken by the school board in response to the issues I raised.

To this day I've never received a response back from them and based on recent comments made to me by teachers it appears that nothing has been done.

As a parent and tax payer who took the time to raise this issue and attend a meeting in Terrace to present it I now feel a follow-up is required. I've requested Board minutes going back to the date of my presentation to track my issues and see what the final disposition was. I've asked to be on the next PAC meeting agenda and am prepared to go in front of the Board once again to either expose them for their lack of action or commend them on their efforts depending what I learn about their response.

Our elected Board members can tell us about the budget shortfalls all they want but as I've told them before they need to stand up on principle and fight the system to make improvements.

Back in the day I suggested they submit a deficit budget to make their point, they were too concerned with conforming to the guidelines laid out by the government. They said if they did this they would lose their positions and a trustee would be brought in to set the budget.

Once again, if it was me I would rather go down on principle than play the game knowing the students in my District were being mistreated.

Board members are elected to deliver the best learning conditions and environment for our students, they are not elected to be money managers as they've become.

When I cast my vote I'm looking for the person who is passionate about my son's well being not the person who is first worried about balancing the budget. As parents our job isn't over when we cast our ballot either, we are the ones who must also continue to hold our officials accountable for their actions and in some cases their lack of action.

Rather than cast negative sentiment towards the special needs faction of our student population I would much rather read hard hitting reporting on the specifics of what has/hasn't been done by our Board to create a "made in CMSD 82" success story for our children.

If a positive story doesn't emerge then let this be the start of a public campaign to boot those trustees out of office if their priorities aren't consistent with those within our District.
Shortage of funds?
Comment by Mike Forward on 27th October 2010
...which is what this is. There are many issues facing and crippling Kitimat, and to suggest that the school board is closing Roy Wilcox solely because of the expense related to educating special needs children is ludicrous, and not at all what they were suggesting.

There are references to a declining population in the student body as well as a shortage of Government funds, both of which would spark far better fodder for discussion than some attention-grabbing headline laying the responsibility for the closure of one of Kitimat's schools at the feet of special needs children who need help in our educational system.
Comment by Mike Forward on 27th October 2010
So...the Daily admits to putting up a sensationalist headline for the mere hope that it draws more readership? How does this seperate the Kitimat Daily from your common tabloid?

I enjoy coming here for news, opinions and the occasional good bit of banter, but this is an asburd route to take, especially for a site to pass itself off as a legitimate news source.

Editor note: Both School Board representatives and the local Teachers representatives each claimed the lack of funding is due to the requirement and the needs of the special needs children not being funded properly. Just what headline should we have used? "The School Board has no idea why they are short of funds."
The title stays put, read the entire article, get involved
Comment by Merv Ritchie on 27th October 2010
Emailed reply to Ms. Robinson

Hi and thanks for commenting,

Although your comments are accurate, so is the title according to the discussions and details shared by the acting Superintendent and the Board Chair.

The article written by Walter, (if the reader gets past the headline, which was designed to draw attention to the issue), details the shortfall in funding and failure of the Government to fund the education system appropriately. The chair draws attention to a pending future calamity, which was not clarified.

We are not attempting to single out the special needs children or blame them. It is the Government that needs to be held to account.

We hope, and recognize the reality, the title gets the community talking and actively addressing the problems.
Calling it as it is
Comment by Rudy Shmidt on 27th October 2010
Fact of the matter and straight to the point is Kitimat is a dying community. Our young population has been forced to leave town now for many years. There are no jobs here. The few jobs that did exist were given to Terrace residents. The young are the lifeline of any community. When they are forced to leave, it starts a domino effect which is difficult to reverse. The results are showing up in spades. It didn't take a rocket scientist to predict this 5 years ago. Make no mistake, Roy Wilcox will not be the last elementary school closing in Kitimat. There are many things broken that need repair before this community can thrive again
Comment by Mike Forward on 27th October 2010
The title of the article here is misleading and more than a little inflammatory. The multitude of reasons for closing a school in Kitimat are laid out quite articulately by those involved. Stating that they are closing a school due to the children with special needs can needlessly cause discord where none is necessary. This should be changed promptly.
Not Due to Special Needs - One Pot of Funds
Comment by Madeleine Robinson on 27th October 2010
I have been getting e-mails regarding the title of the Roy Wilcox Closure and the assumption that we are closing our school because of special education costs. The title is blaming special needs children for the closure when in fact student decline is the main reason. You have to understand how special needs funding is delivered first, the link for this explains further on the MESS website, look under student/parents, sub-menu student supports. You can read how the funding is allocated based on a child's designation for low incidence children and the fact that high incidence children (those who have learning problems and are not designated) do not receive the funding. The bottom line is that we have one pot to divide funding amongst all the schools in our District and hopefully it is divided equally amongst for facilites and education, including services, resources and SSA support.
Sounds like a different meeting then the one I went to
Comment by SBarbosa on 26th October 2010
Interesting the take on the meeting yesterday. I think it was made quite clear that Roy Wilcox is up for closing due to declining enrollment, lack of funding, old buildings that need major repairs and the board needing to balance their budget. While there was discussion about how the funding is lacking to support our special needs children, the title and contents of this article make it seem like it's because of the funding of special needs students that our school is closing. Why blame the most vulnerable children in the education system? If I was a parent that didn't attend, I would be left to assume this is the only reason why my children's school is closing. Putting out that perception is wrong on so many levels. I think some clarification is needed and a more appropriate title such as as "Lack of Funding By the Liberal Government Causes School Closure"
DIsgusted by possible school closure
Comment by Pam Vollrath on 26th October 2010
They belong in their own NEIGHBOURHOOD school! It is so unfair that the Whitesail neighbourhood should be suffering the closure of its 2 neighbourhood schools!
Why is it that Kildala is exempt? I know that $1m has been invested in Kildala recently. Seems strange that should happen to a school which was essentially condemned about 15 years ago!