Middle school closure hashed out

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School District 64 administrators held a public meeting last Wednesday night to discuss the board’s intention to close Salt Spring Middle School and what that will mean for its existing students. 

The board of eduction gave a notice of motion on the school closure as part of a district-wide configuration change that has been partly propelled by a looming $1.1 annual deficit. The district says lower enrolment than in the past also means it currently has too many facilities compared to students. 

With their vote scheduled for the Feb. 10, 2021 public meeting, a 60-day consultation period is now underway.

Wednesday’s meeting was held on the Zoom platform and moderated by John Wakefield, who is a former Salt Spring school trustee. Gulf Islands superintendent of schools Scott Benwell and secretary treasurer Jesse Guy gave a presentation based on the most commonly received questions about what will happen next year. 

Benwell reported closing the middle school will not result in the loss of special programs, district staff or classroom resources, as some parents had feared.

“We’re not losing our innovative teachers. They’re going to take their talents and skills to their new schools, and that’s such an asset to our students,” Benwell said, adding teachers have shown willingness to work with new teams and school communities. “I have every confidence the talent that is at SIMS will find its way to new settings.”

Continued access to Late French Immersion has been a primary concern for multiple families throughout the district’s configuration process. The program will return to Salt Spring Elementary School where it was held prior to SIMS’ opening in 1995 and will have one intake class per year starting in Grade 6.

“We’re feeling that model, because of closure of the middle school, will work well in terms of retention of students in the program,” said district department head Louise Doucet.

A new feature of the program is it won’t be geared to just Salt Spring students. Instead there will be some seats for students from all the Gulf Islands with placement by lottery. 

Benwell additionally clarified that no student who is currently enrolled in French Immersion has to worry about losing their place in the program. 

Staff reconfirmed that Salt Spring elementary schools have the space to move from their current K-5 model to K-7, both according to the square footage required by the Ministry of Education and to consultation with all the school principals. Elementary school catchment areas on Salt Spring could be adjusted in the future, however, if there is a need to balance school populations.

In answer to a key question about what will happen with the Grade 6 cohort currently at SIMS, Benwell and new school board chair Tisha Boulter reconfirmed that group will spend their Grade 7 year in the middle school facility, while the cohort going into Grade 8 will be moving on to Gulf Islands Secondary School. Although some have questioned the financial sense of this move, the admin team said only part of the facility will be used, heated and maintained by the district. They believe keeping the Grade 7 cohort on site is an overall better plan than sending those students back to the elementary schools they last attended in Grade 5.

The admin team will be consulting with the students, parents and staff who are staying the extra year as to which part of the facility they would prefer to use, but suggested that might be the main quad area around the courtyard, which will leave the south wing available to other groups for long-term leasing. 

The Salt Spring Performing Arts Society has already earmarked the school as a potential home for rehearsal, storage and performance space for its member groups. Guy explained that whoever takes the building lease would be tasked with overseeing space rental, since the school district does not have the capacity or the mandate. 

Adria Kray, who is the SIMS parent advisory committee co-chair and district parent advisory committee member, asked several questions on behalf of parents, including about how transportation factored in the upcoming decision.

She also asked about the seismic upgrade funded by the province that took place at SIMS during the 2008-09 school year. 

“The taxpayer piece concerns me, with how much was invested there,” Kray said.

Benwell said the district has no intention of disposing of the school facilities and they will be available for other groups to use for at least the next five to seven years, when student enrolment is projected to be smaller.

“It’s still there, it’s still existing, we’re not selling it off. The hope is it’s actually available to even more people,” Guy added. 

District administrators will be holding meetings in January to consult staff at the other schools that will be directly impacted by the change, including Salt Spring’s elementary schools and GISS. 

Community members can submit their feedback via a form on the sd64.bc.ca website under the Configuration section.

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