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Bitter fruit for school board

There are more tough days ahead for School District 57, especially in rural areas. While trustees have joined their provincial counterparts in a call for more funding, they will receive less, not more money, in upcoming years.

There are more tough days ahead for School District 57, especially in rural areas.

While trustees have joined their provincial counterparts in a call for more funding, they will receive less, not more money, in upcoming years. Extra funds will go to growing school districts in the northeast, the Southern Interior, the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island.

Premier Christy Clark angered parents and school trustees earlier this year with her off-the-cuff remark about school districts needing to pick the "low-hanging fruit" to balance their budgets. In School District 57, there are two big pieces of that fruit that still need to be picked, as identified in a report presented to the school board this week.

One sentence in the Cascade Facilities Management long-term school facility plan says it all: "Despite the closure of 21 schools since 2001/02, the capacity in the District is still considered under-utilzed as the enrolment continues to decline due to a decreasing school age population."

In other words, more schools or portions of schools need to be closed over the next few years.

The Ministry of Education has a 95 per cent minimum capacity expectation, both at the district and individual school level. The Cascade report projects that just 12 of the district's 31 elementary schools and just three of its eight high schools will be at that level in 2023/24.

Some of the Cascade report's recommendations are relatively simple to implement, such as relocating the French immersion program from Duchess Park to PGSS and adjusting catchment boundaries between a handful of schools in the Bowl.

The difficult choices, however, are what to do with many of the rural schools outside of Prince George, as well as the deteriorating condition of most of the schools still open.

In Mackenzie, addressing the problem is as simple as moving the Grade 7 students at Morfee elementary into the under-populated Mackenzie secondary. Unfortunately in McBride and Valemount, the best thing to do may be to merge the elementary and secondary schools into one. Closer to Prince George, the report notes that Blackburn, Buckhorn, Pineview and Hixon elementaries are all below capacity and likely to stay that way, while the building at Blackburn is in terrible shape and should be closed. Merging the schools into two renovated buildings or one new building on one of the properties are options.

Compounding the enrolment problem is that Cascade found all but five of the school buildings to be in fair or poor condition. The three "poor" buildings - Spruceland, Blackburn and Kelly Road - don't meet minimum requirements and should be replaced immediately (the new Kelly Road school will be roughly half the size of the current school, based on enrolment projections). The others were rated fair by Cascade, which means "has significant deficiencies, but meets minimum requirements; some significant building system components nearing the end of their normal life-cycle." Put simply, the majority of area schools require renovation or demolition in the not-too-distant future. Just five schools were rated in good or excellent condition.

Closing all or parts of under-occupied schools that are becoming increasingly costly to maintain is the first piece of fruit for SD 57 trustees to pick. The second is the 18 surplus properties the district still owns, all of which the Cascade report said were "highly unlikely" to be needed for educational purposes in the next 10 years. Five of the properties are land only, five are closed and vacant schools, seven are schools that have been fully or partially leased, and one is an unused maintenance facility in McBride.

Cascade calls for 12 of the properties to be sold over the next three to seven years, as well as the demolition of six schools if the property can't be sold with the building still on it. The other six will likely continue to provide revenue for the district as leased properties.

For School District 57, the cash from the land sales could be used to rebuild its dwindling surplus while the savings in reduced building and maintenance costs would provide some relief in the operational budget and lessen the impact of budgetary challenges felt at the teacher and student level.

The provincial government has made it clear there is no further help coming for School District 57 and the education ministry now has a facilities report showing ample opportunities for school trustees to make and save money. That gives the school board little choice but to implement most or all of the Cascade report, as difficult as that will be to swallow for the affected neighbourhoods and communities.

-- Managing editor Neil Godbout