In the face of funding cuts and decreasing enrollment, our school board (SD8) is considering some drastic decisions regarding school closures. The consideration of closing Winlaw Elementary School has far reaching impacts that go beyond the scope of measuring assets and liabilities. And yet, our children and communities could be torn apart by the drop of the board’s gavel for the sake of fiscal management.
Many underutilized schools across the province are slated for closure as districts aim for utilization over 85 per cent. I asked the school board on April 19 if they would research impacts of rural school closures, and additionally look into any schools that were closed which were fully utilized or resulted in children being migrated to a more remote location away from the urban hubs. Results of that research would pertain to the consequences of closing Winlaw Elementary School.
Winlaw Elementary is currently operating at near capacity with a prospering school culture and incredibly diverse programming. The school has great parent volunteer and PAC involvement, active fundraising for a plethora of programming and excellent staff. All of these attributes, and many more, would dissolve and not be carried over into another facility should the school close. Families move to the Winlaw area because of the quality of learning, accessibility and culture in the local school.
The draft plan has not measured or taken into consideration feasibilities of community actions should the school close. SD8 staff assumed if Winlaw closed that the children of the Winlaw catchment would be assimilated into the same catchment as W.E. Graham in Slocan, and that Winlaw students would migrate north to increase enrollment at W.E. Graham. That would result in young children in the south end of the Winlaw catchment travelling up to 40 km each way and spending hours a day on the bus.
Winlaw PAC conducted community surveys to acquire realistic results in cases of closure of either W.E. Graham or Winlaw Elementary.
The surveys represents 97 children in the Slocan Valley, 59 of whom go to Winlaw Elementary and 18 of whom go to the Winlaw Strong Start (Pre-K) program. Here are some of the results collected as of April 25:
Should Winlaw Elementary close
• 40 per cent of the Winlaw students would choose to go south to Brent Kennedy Elementary School;
• 33 per cent of the Winlaw students would go north to W.E. Graham in Slocan;
• 44 per cent of the student population in the Slocan Valley would choose private or independent education outside of SD8;
Also, the top three reasons influencing their school choices are:
• Proximity to home, scored 40 marks;
• School programming, scored 33 marks;
• School staffing, scored 32 marks
Brent Kennedy is also at full capacity, so how would they accommodate the students migrating there? First, they would have to expel the out-of-district students from Glade and Shoreacres to make room for students within the district. However that would not support the extra space and staffing needed. The school district would need to invest in creating more classroom space and augment staffing. Those capital costs have not been identified or considered in the weighing of the Winlaw school closure scenario.
The annual operating savings for closing Winlaw would only be $184,742. The deferred maintenance costs are arguable as not all the identified costs are necessary and some of the costs are inflated for the work deemed as necessary. In any case, the deferred maintenance costs for Winlaw are lower than W.E. Graham. So why was consideration for closure of W.E. Graham which has only 26 per cent utilization with deferred maintenance costs of $2,029,623 taken out of the draft plan when Winlaw Elementary has 89 per cent utilization with deferred maintenance costs of $1,310,393?
The school district aims to be competitive with independent and private education. According to surveys, closure of Winlaw Elementary School would result in an increase from 15 per cent to 44 per cent of students choosing programming other than public education in SD8. The funding loss would be significant for the district. The funding loss for ejecting out-of district students at Brent Kennedy would also be significant. That leaves the question of “What is the closure of Winlaw Elementary School really worth?”
How can the board close a school which is prospering, offers a unique range of diverse programming, has high student enrollment (near capacity) and is the central hub of a rural community? Winlaw Elementary School is a model of rural educational success. Let it stand and show how small rural communities, and their schools, can prosper.
Shauna Robertson, Winlaw