What happens when you have a half-empty rural school?
Take W.E. Graham Elementary in Slocan, for example, or Jewett in Meadow Creek. Both of them were almost closed as part of this year’s facilities planning process, and were only rescued due to a last-minute provincial government cash infusion.
The trouble? Their utilization rate—a number calculated by the government that compares population to capacity—are still less than ideal. And that has a negative effect on the district’s overall numbers, effectively putting them in hot water with the Ministry of Education.
“In our less rural areas we have schools that are quite full because of population, but in far-reaching areas we have schools that are not full because of population, or shift in demographic,” Superintendent Jeff Jones told the Star, following Tuesday night’s board meeting at W.E. Graham.
“So what happens with a school like Jewett is when we calculate the district-wide utilization rate it is impacted by having that school as part of the community.”
He summed up the problem they often face with rural schools: “We need a school but have too much building.”
But there’s another thing to factor in: StrongStart. A Pre-K program offered in many of the rural schools, it’s not currently being factored into the utilization numbers because it falls outside the district’s K-12 purview.
“We very much support early learning,” chair Lenora Trenaman told the Star. “But we have not been given consideration for the utilization that we provide StrongStart programs in all of our facilities.
“We want to know: what is the ministry’s expectation of us? Our domain is K-12 but we’re encouraged to provide StrongStart within our premises, which supports our education for kindergarten and beyond.”
Slocan Valley trustee Sharon Nazaroff, who was a fierce advocate for Winlaw during the facilities planning process, put forward a motion at the board meeting that called on the ministry to calculate utilization rates differently for rural schools.
Trenaman noted that upon receiving the rural school fund from the province they were provided with the criteria for a school being classified as rural. According to their numbers every school in SD8 qualifies.
And Jones figures this will be a hot topic this school year.
“I suspect this will be one of those conversations that will be ongoing.”
The motion passed, and now Nazaroff is scheduled to attend an upcoming Kootenay Boundary meeting of the BCSTA (BC School Trustees Association) where she will request the matter be taken to the provincial council of the BCSTA.
“This could essentially change the way we look at funding formulas for capital renewal,” said Jones. “In Nelson, if we had a 90 percent utilization rate we could use that independent of whatever’s happening with our schools that have lower enrolment.”
That would be good news for students, teachers, parents and administrators alike, said Jones.
“This would enable us to make a better case for new buildings and improvements,” he said, “as we continue to shift the way we meet the needs of students.”