District board members held a reconfiguration consultation presentation, April 27, which could signal the closure of Sowchea Elementary School.
Sowchea Elementary School, situated 16 kilometres outside of Fort St James, first opened with eight classrooms in September 1982. The school re-opened after a renovation and expansion of three portable classrooms in September 1993. Part of the decision to close the 22-year-old elementary school is based on the state of the district’s building and the current and projected enrolment levels which were presented by the board to various groups attending the consultation.
Stephen Davis, SD 91 Board Chair, said enrolments are not growing for the district schools, he said dropping enrolment trends make it difficult to financially maintain and staff the current schools.
“The dollars spent to maintaining buildings that are not required, cannot be spent in other areas of need,” Davis said.
He said that in addition to shrinking enrolment, other pressures are factors such as increased hydro costs and maintenance of buildings, Davis also said funding protection is decreasing in order to support districts with growing enrolments.
The BC Ministry of Education provides funding protection to eligible school district to protect against declines of more than 1.5 per cent in funding from the previous year. Funding protection is determined by comparing operating grants from the summer and autumn of the previous school year to total summer and autumn operating grants for the current year. Funding protection is provided to make sure the amount of decline is no greater than 1.5 per cent.
“It is the board’s responsibility to consider all factors in determining the best use of our limited dollars over time. In order to best support the 594 local students, as well as the 3,000 students across the district,” Davis said.
Charlene Seguin, Superintendent of Schools, said districts with excess enrolment capacity are too low for new space and renovation funding through the BC Ministry of Education, she said this puts increasing pressure on the district’s operating budget.
“We are utilizing 45 per cent of (Sowchea’s) space,” she said. “If board decides that re-configuration is the decision they will make, 74 per cent of our space will be used in the Fort St. James schools, leaving surplus capacity at 26 per cent … a much better picture for us.”
While operating costs remain at the current level, Sowchea Elementary School – which is sitting at a low capacity utilization rate – has expensive repairs in its future, Seguin said.
Emotions were high from parent groups, union members and the public who were unsure about what the closure will mean for the students and the community of Sowchea.
Christie Hoy, with the Sowchea Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), said Fort St. James is the second fastest growing community in British Columbia. With projects like Fort Green Energy bringing employment to the district there is growth potential in the future she said.
“We have a lot of great things going on in Fort St. James,” Hoy said.
Hoy listed concerns with the quality of education and experiences of students, she said students could potentially lose out on many programs that are currently available at the school for the community. “We look forward to hearing a more detailed response to our questions,” she said.
Questions posed during the consultation period will be available in detail on the school district’s website and will include SD 91 responses.
Busing transportation was another concern for parents at the consultation. Davis said the district’s Transportation Manager will ensure that adequate transportation will be made available for students should the closure happen.
Coun. Dave Birdi questioned whether class sizes and resources were going to be impacted by the decision to close Sowchea Elementary School.
Davis said class sizes are capped by provincial mandate, he said that there will be more services available due to increased budgets.
“The school’s budget can cover more EA’s than they could when the schools were small,” Davis said.
Senguin said the board believes that there will still be a need for the same number of teachers and that support staff will still be available for students, she said putting two budgets together will provide a flexible budget for the school and improve services.
“Typically the larger the elementary school, the more flexibility we have with the budget,” she said.
Dawn Godard, Grade 5/6 teacher at Sowchea Elementary School, brought up her concerns and asked for the board to come and visit the school and meet the students prior to making a final decision to close the school.
“I think to make an educated and informed decision, you have to come visit our school,” Godard said.
Davis said that it wasn’t a decision that would be based on the merit of schools. “We’re not doubting any of the commitment, the passion or the excellence of any of our educators or our schools,” Davis said. “This has nothing to do with excellence … I don’t know that necessarily going to a school can change the fact that there are tough decisions to be made.”
“At the end of the day we’re here make sure we get all the information we can, and if part of getting that information is going to a school we will try to do that.”
Public consultation – happening over the next 60 days – will see a decision on school closures taking place on June 22, just four days prior to the end of the current school year.