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REPORTING · 21st January 2012
Walter McFarlane
Parents, Teachers, Administration and City Councillors, all of whom are concerned about the Building Plan for Coast Mountains School District 82 gathered at the Mount Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday, January 18th for a one hour long presentation.

Board of Education Chair Art Erasmus, Trustees Raymond Raj and Gary Turner, Superintendent Nancy Wells, Director of instruction Brent Speidel and John Garossino, Director of Facilities were present to talk about the Building Plan, which was circulated to community leaders on December 23rd.

“The Minister of Education requires each School District to provide a 10 year plan related to facilties for planning purposes,” said Erasmus.

Erasmus expressed they were taking the plan to multiple communities and thanked Council for coming to this meeting. He suggested they are looking for feedback from the communities before the beginning of February. He expressed this is a facilities report, not an education report.

Garossino explained they have to justify the capital expenditures they are asking from the Ministry of Education. The plan helps guide them through the decisions related to buildings.

“It’s not an educational plan, it’s to look at the structures and the facilities and see where we’re going to be in regards to the future, ten years down the road. Some of the principles we are looking at, and have asked to be incorporated into this plan, are to identify and support the facility needs of any revised grade structure, […] it has to take into account future growth and decline, school age populations, building conditions, grade structure changes; it really has to recognize, because we are such a diverse district that covers a whole lot of regional area, the importance of small rural schools, it has to look at Ministry of Education Initiatives in regards to what the ministry [asks] us to ensure there is space for buildings in the future, and it has to support the First Nations.”

The School District has several tasks to accomplish. They want to have enough room in the schools for the students. They want the money they invest into facilities to accommodate those facilities in the future. They have to promote education and have community spaces for the local population as schools are used for more than just education.

Garossino explained there are several initiatives they have to look at: Full day Kindergarten and Neighbourhoods of Learning, where schools educate from Cradle to Grave.

He explained the plan was based in three regions, Kitimat, Terrace and the Northeast. Each of them are geographical areas with different needs.

The existing infrastructure in Kitimat are Kildala Elementary School, Nechako Elementary School, Mount Elizabeth and Kitimat City High. The two elementary schools and Mount Elizabeth were all built in the 1950s so they are aging facilities.

There also have several buildings which are not schools: Kitimat City High’s old location across from Riverlodge (which has just been leased), Alexander Elementary (which is leased to KVI), Kitimat Maintenance Building in the Service Center, The School Board Office (leased to the CDC) and Roy Wilcox Elementary.

Garossino expressed Mount Elizabeth is the District’s number one facility for upgrading. Nechako and Kildala are also on the list for upgrading and all three of the schools had mechanical work. They are making every effort to maintain the buildings to the highest standard they can.

Speidel got up to talk about demographics. He related that due to the economics of the area, the general population of the school district has declined by 6500 people resulting in a declining student population. Student population drives the space for programs in the facilities.

”As a result, our youth have been decreasing as well. Middle age groups rose and peaked in 1996 and then declined. And of course, the one group that is increasing, of course, is the seniors,” said Speidel .

He projected further decline among the school aged population. He said there would be an increase in the middle age people but they will not produce families in the same way they did many years ago. The increase will not mean more children. The senior category will almost double.

He pointed out schools have to adapt their programs when there are more grade threes and less grade sevens. Speidel expressed that problems they have placing kids is not because they are bursting at the seams, it is because of the dynamics of class sizes. He expected a slow decline in all the schools except Kitimat City High. Real estate has been selling but the net result is still less kids.

One of the challenges in Kitimat is the schools were built bigger in the 50’s than they are now. The classrooms are bigger. The ministry looks at the size of the schools when they support capital projects. If the trends continue, by 2021, the capacity of the schools in Kitimat is expected to be at 39%.

Mount Elizabeth has 600 students at the moment, 52%. When the grade 7s come in, they will take the amount to 55%. They do not need to build new schools but they have to rationalize existing space. Not every room needs to be a classroom. The current class rooms were built to accommodate different eras and do not have a quantity of things such as plug ins

Garossino took over again for the recommendations put forward to the Board of Education. These recommendations include to dispose of the surplus properties, verify their enrolment projections annually, continue to operate small rural schools, close off wings to make schools smaller, combine their projects, remove old buildings and clean the existing sites and merge two student populations in Thornhill.

The most contentious of these issues in Kitimat is to close another school. “One of the recommendations are, and I use the word, consider closing an elementary school in a Kitimat area within a few years,” said Garossino.

He explained the ministry of Edcuation needs to know a school’s needs, know the long term plan, make sure they see the plans are justified and put the pressure to get the capital projects covered. They also need to assess the enrolment annually.

Erasmus explained they are looking for feedback by February 3rd. The board hopes to adopt this plan at their February Meeting. Feedback sheets are available online at the school board website.

Councillor Mario Feldhoff commented first. He said the community was not aware of the report until they read about it last week. He was encouraged by them reflecting on the economic development. He expressed retirees would be replaced with young people with families.

Feldhoff cautioned them away from disposing of vacant schools in case the community grows and they need to build a school. He felt the plan was coming from the wrong perspective. He suggested they should look at whether the schools are in the right neighbourhoods and will they meet the needs of 20th century schools. Feldhoff suggested smaller schools would better fit the neighbourhood schools.

The response was that the school board can not raise taxes and had to justify their expenditures. Feldhoff replied Roy Wilcox was perfectly sized for its neighbourhood and now they are trying to fit everyone into Nechako.

A teacher from the School in Kitamaat Village was concerned about whether a school closure would mean more students at their community School. They were also told they should consider advertising 2 weeks before a meeting rather than one.

Margaret Sanou, a retired teacher and head of the Retire in Kitimat Task Force said there was a connection between the size of schools and how well students do. A school with 500 students creates a different atmosphere for the students and recent trends focus towards smaller schools.

She said it is not feasible for students who miss the bus to walk up the hill. Those are the at risk kids. She suggested their parents were also at risk kids at some point and walking to school is something which needs to be considered.

Mayor of Kitimat, Joanne Monaghan wanted to know if they were working with the industries coming into the community to get the projections of the families coming in. She said there were several new families with ten new children moving onto her street. The response was the School Board does work with the major industries. Industries will be bringing in camps and not families for their building projects.

Councillor Rob Goffinet wanted to know about the middle school concept which will be put together in the fall. The answer was delayed to the end of the forum. Later, he would be instructed to attend the meetings.

The Board Members were asked if they were taking into account the other uses at the school, such as after School Care and the Community Kitchen. He was told they were taking those into account. He was also told Kitimat is best served by having one school up the hill, and one school down.

Reid Nelson, President of the Kitimat District Teachers Association had a teacher approach him concerning a family with two children moving into Kitimat. The family was told there was not enough room for one of those children, yet Kildala is operating at 53% capacity. They were told they could enrol one child at Nechako or both at Saint Anthony’s.

“I stress a concern that the School District is not meeting the needs of the students currently in this community and we’re now talking about reducing schools as a possibility,” said Nelson. He was told the appeals go through the Principal to the District Office.

Nelson agreed they need to press the Ministry of Education. He asked them how they intend to do that. The reply they will apply pressure by justifying their expenses and the needs which are to be funded. Erasmus suggested going around to Victoria and knocking on doors as a silly solution to the problem.

Nelson pointed out the Critic for Education was the MLA for this Region. He was doing what he could but he is in a minority Government. Nelson suggested going to Victoria and beating down the doors. “We need to send our superintendent, our trustees, our teachers, some of our parents because we are not receiving adequate funding. Maybe we need to do that,” said Nelson.

“Maybe we do,” agreed Erasmus.

One person asked if they needed to get funding to build smaller schools. Garossino answered with the state of the economy, a community would require a population explosion before the government started putting money into new schools. He added it would be unacceptable for students to go to a dilapidated school.

One parent questioned whether the funds from the building sales would go back to Kitimat. She was told the funds might not even come back to the board. Leasing a property would cover the cost of leasing the building.

Another parent was unclear on the timeline as for when the review of schools began. She was told this was an overview of what would happen in the next ten years. They will review enrolment every year and if the population trend continues to decline, they will try to put the students in the two schools. He pointed out the recommendation was made to them by people who do not understand the geographical issues in Kitimat.

Feldhoff questioned the timing of the mail out in December. They would not get a full response from the community. He encouraged the school board to table the report and give the community more time to read it. Many people would not be aware. It was explained the board wanted to adopt the report, not endorse it.

There were other questions about the information on the slides and why they picked the coldest weather to have the forum.

“It’s hard for a community to understand the long range planning that has to go on from a board of education perspective. I think that’s particularly true when the wounds are perhaps a bit raw from school closure and you get a report that’s talking about the big picture. But within that big picture, it mentions that this community may not need as many schools some time in the future,” concluded Wells.

She explained this was not a school closure meeting but a long term planning meeting. They were trying to include the community and ask the community for input and feedback.