Five scenarios for the reconfiguration of district schools were presented to the community during a meeting at Nechako Valley Secondary School (NVSS) on Monday, Feb. 4.
The scenarios, part of an audit developed by Matrix Planning Associates, involve renewing existing facilities with renovations and replacements, optimizing schools by utilizing their full capacity through closures and amalgamations, or maintaining the status quo.
“There’s no gun to your head. You can go ahead the way you are,” said William Wood, a Matrix consultant who presented the firm’s findings at the meeting.
About 150 people attended the meeting, the beginning of a 60-day public consultation process by the Nechako Lakes School District Board of Education on reconfiguring district schools.
“Neither I or any member of the board have made a decision in this matter,” said Chairperson Steve Davis.
“I’m very excited to have you here as partners in that process,” he said.
The public consultation process was prompted by the deteriorating condition – drainage, foundation, windows and exterior wall problems – of Prairiedale Elementary School that was made evident to the board in April 2000, and again in a 2008 audit, according to notes released by Superintendent Charlene Seguin.
The 2008 audit identified six major building issues at Prairiedale that required upgrades to bring the school up to acceptable standards.
Facing a $3.5-million shortfall at the time, the school district chose to invest in maintenance rather than major repairs.
But the $3.5-million budget shortfall was “not the driver behind” the Feb. 4 meeting, Seguin emphasized.
“For the Board and district staff, educational as well as financial considerations play a role in every decision we make, short term and long term,” she said.
With structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical upgrades valued at $4 million, W.L. McLeod Elementary School is more in need of replacement, according to the audit. Prairiedale requires $660,000 of upgrades, but isn’t a candidate for replacement in the foreseeable future, the audit says.
In addition to maintenance upgrades, the proposed reconfiguration scenarios were also based on current and projected enrollment figures at district schools.
Prairiedale, Sinkut View and Evelyn Dickson are the only schools operating at, or above, full capacity. W.L. McLeod and NVSS operate at 74 and 65 per cent of maximum capacity, respectively. Mapes Elementary School, located 22 kilomteres south of Vanderhoof, is only 34 per cent full, according to the audit.
Matrix forecasts minimal gains in enrollment at Vanderhoof elementary schools, while attendance at NVSS is expected to decline substantially, dropping 18 per cent by 2017, despite estimates by municipal staff that the population of Vanderhoof will increase by hundreds of people in the coming years due to resource development.
“Out intelligence shows us,” Wood said, “that that could happen, but it’s not likely to happen.”
“Any growth is likely to be relatively modest,” he said.
Operating costs were also a factor in developing the scenarios.
Overhead expenses like hydro and property taxes remain fixed regardless of utilization, said Wood. However, high enrollment is critical to acquiring funds for renovations or new construction, said Wood.
“Quality buildings and quality education require adequate funding. With funding tied to enrollment, and most funding dedicated to personnel, you can’t afford to spend limited budgets on operating and maintaining facilities that are not fully utilized,” the audit says.
During a period of public presentations, Prairiedale PAC representative Kari Rae questioned how the possible amalgamation of Kindergarten to Grade 6 students into larger facilities would affect a child’s education, learning and development.
“Every child that goes to elementary school in this town is affected by this. Not just Prairiedale, not just Sinkut View, but everybody,” she said.
Rae said that, in the past, the board was reluctant to share information with the PAC about the state of Prairedale’s structural integrity. Rae also questioned the inconsistency of two facility audits completed in 2010. One audit, completed in Februrary, found $203,200 of deficiencies, and another identified $571,000 of deficiencies in November, she said.
Notes from the Feb. 4 meeting, as well as the Matrix audit, have been posted on the school district’s website for public access.