The Gulf Islands School District’s present funding crisis is a new iteration of a near constant theme heard over two decades.
Changing demographics and declining enrollment on one hand have met with increasing costs and unchanged geographical challenges on the other, with transportation at the intersection. A study of similar-sized school districts in British Columbia shows the Gulf Islands outspends all but one on student transportation and housing. These costs can’t be reduced much unless some radical changes are made.
Getting rid of the free school bus service that most islands currently enjoy is one option, though not enough to overcome a $1.1-million annual shortfall. Changing the configuration of schools so that students stay longer in their neighbourhood facilities is another.
The district’s legislated need to produce a balanced budget has often seemed at odds with its goal of providing excellent education for all of its students equally. That is more pronounced than ever in the potential plan for configuration the board and administration singled out as deserving more exploration over the summer months.
This path would change all elementary schools to cover grades K-7, and eliminate the middle school. But while Salt Spring students would carry on to Gulf Islands Secondary School after that, students living on Saturna, Mayne, Pender and Galiano islands would spend grades 8 and 9 on Pender. Those students could then choose to go to GISS or continue on through Grade 12 and graduate out of a new Pender secondary program.
Outer island parents who already feel their kids are missing out by having limited access to Salt Spring’s middle school are guessing there will be even more social and educational drawbacks to delaying the move to a bigger school community until Grade 10. And although the board and staff have said the savings produced could make sure innovative and fun programs are available at both high schools, the ability to double all the sports teams, band and theatre programs and extra-curriculars is indeed questionable.
All options are still open. Deciding how to measure “equity” and applying it in a way that makes sense to families is the epic task the school board must now undertake.
Community members can help them by submitting the feedback form at sd64.bc.ca.