Trustees still struggling with Slocan schools
While the prognosis for the Slocan Valley’s four schools is looking good, board members at Kootenay Lake school district are still worrying about the cost of keeping all of facilities in operation.
At its first meeting of the new year, the board balked at passing a series of recommendations that would see W.E. Graham, Winlaw Elementary, Mount Sentinel Secondary and Brent Kennedy Elementary become a “family of schools,” sharing some resources and staff.
Both Winlaw and W.E. Graham — where student enrollment has been declining — faced a possible closure or reconfiguration early last year, when SD8 was facing a major revenue shortfall. But after picking up extra provincial funding, the school board put the process on hold, giving parents in the area a year form a committee and come up with alternatives to the closures.
In addition to the family of schools idea, the committee asked the SD8 board to pass recommendations that would allow for a mix of online and face-to-face programming and to examine the catchment boundaries that determine who can attend what school in the area.
But the majority of the board took issue with two things absent from the recommendations: a timeline for the changes and a specific cost-reduction plan.
“Looking at these motions, they’re great. I could not not support these,” said Nelson trustee Bill Maslechko. “But it does not address the concerns that we had when we first initiated this.”
Salmo and Taghum trustee Art Field chimed in with similar concerns.
“I think [the committee’s] hearts are in the right place and I’m more or less with them,” he said.
“However, I don’t think we’re more ahead tonight... In terms of under utilization and finances, we’re still in that boat.”
With the meeting running over time and most of the trustees unsure what to do, the board deferred a vote on the recommendations to its next meeting in February, asking superintendent Jeff Jones to get the committee to come up with more detailed financial plans.
Talking to the Star after the meeting, Jones says there are a few cost-saving options to look at, ranging from “right sizing” (knocking down an unused wing of W.E. Graham, for instance) to leasing space in the schools to community groups.
But, he added, the committee’s recommendations also contained a way to increase the district’s funding.
“Our hope is to create programming that attracts students who are both presently enrolled with us, and who aren’t enrolled with us because we haven’t provided them with the options that they need,” he said.
Currently, SD8 loses some of its students to the Arrow Lakes school district, and some to independent homeschool and distance education courses.
But Jones thinks some students could be brought back if they were able to bus to the smaller W.E. Graham, which runs the popular Valhalla Wilderness program, or if they were given more course options.
Once the committee comes up with more details, Jones says he’s hopeful the board will vote to keep all four schools open.
“The board would prefer to be in a position of not having to close schools,” he said. “I know the board would like to ensure there’s a pubic education presence in these communities.”