School board faces tough choices

Back when Lyn Hall was the school board chair, before being elected to city council in 2011 and then mayor in 2014, he and his fellow school trustees were forced to close numerous area schools in response to a rapidly declining population of school-aged children.

A decade later, school board chair Tim Bennett, along with his fellow six trustees (four of them rookies in the job), are now wrestling with the opposite problem of crowded schools filled with students.

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In 2015, school trustees were told in a report that the projected number of students in School District 57 in the 2018-19 school year would be 11,900. Fast forward to today where the actual number is a bit more than 13,000. That's a miss of 1,100 students or 10 per cent. Put another way, there are more unexpected students in the local system than in all of Duchess Park Secondary School, which had 1,030 pupils as of Sept. 30.

Duchess Park is the epicentre of the problem.

Well over its official capacity of 900 students, administrators, teachers and students have adjusted to "a creative use of space," according to a staff report, with science classes taught in the theatre and math classes in the art room and the conference room. Other classes, such as band, work experience, fitness and sports have been pushed to either before or after regular class times.

A quick and dirty solution to the capacity issues at Duchess Park that has been floated for the past couple years has been moving the French immersion students to PGSS, which has the space to take them, so long as there would also be some shuffling of the elementary feeder schools for Duchess and PGSS.

Bennett is having none of it.

Not only was that option rejected by 60 per cent of the parents of French Immersion students in a survey conducted in May and June of this year, it ignores the capacity issues of other local high schools, particularly College Heights.

Bennett is looking for a broader, longer-term solution that incorporates the whole city and outlying areas, as well as the elementary schools, rather than just a solution to the bursting seams at Duchess Park.

That's smart and commendable but it comes with its own problems.

Exploring a variety of options costs both time and money with no guarantee the best outcome will be the result. Furthermore, this entire situation shows how difficult it is to hit a moving target and how unreliable projecting ahead even just three years can be when it comes to student numbers.

As Bennett noted in an interview with The Citizen, catchment areas and school capacity were the big issues voters identified to school board candidates during the election.

The previous board of trustees was split over how to respond to the Duchess Park dilemma, with some favouring decisive action based on the information at hand and others opting to wait for more information and a clearer picture before carefully proceeding.

The ever-optimistic Bennett termed the unanticipated higher number of students in the district as a "good news story."

A good problem to have is still a problem, however, and the choices this new board will have to make soon will be no less challenging than the ones Hall and his colleagues made sitting in the same seats a decade ago.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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