School district configuration debate continues

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The Gulf Islands Board of Education continues to grapple with how to configure schools in order to meet a significant operating deficit, and whether or not making that decision next month is the best idea.

A large portion of the board’s last business meeting, held over Zoom on Oct. 14, was devoted to the district’s configuration review. Trustees raised a number of areas where they would like more information from staff and are set to get those answers at the Oct. 28 committee-of-the-whole meeting. They are expected to vote on a reconfiguration motion at the Nov. 18 board meeting.

Galiano trustee Shelley Lawson said she had a different motion ready that would put the brakes on the process at least until January 2021. She decided not to raise it until after hearing the new information on Oct. 28.

“I’m not confident I can make a decision on one of the configuration scenarios in November,” Lawson said, adding, “I don’t feel the scenarios we received in September really address the concerns that drove this process forward.”

Parents have also said that November is too early to make a decision. Asking the board to “press pause” on the process was the number-one point in a “five-by-five campaign” created by parents to help other parents submit feedback by selecting from a series of pre-written statements.

Galiano Island constituents have been especially vocal about concerns with the configuration review process, and the suggested shift that would send most students on the southern Gulf Islands to Pender for grades 8 and 9. That option has been flagged as the best case of five potential reconfiguration scenarios that staff modelled to show how different variables could either create savings or add to expenses.

Caitlin Pencarrick Hertzman, chair of the Galiano Parent Advisory Committee, told the board families are still struggling with COVID stresses, including how to send their kids to school safely, and said this is not the right time to address configuration questions.

“A lot of people are actually just shocked that we’re dealing with both of these at once, along with the anti-racism work the district is committed to,” Hertzman said.

She further described problems with the board’s consultation process, which she said involved two years of looking at big-picture ideas but ended very quickly once some specific options were announced.

“And that looks really bad,” she added.

When the board voted to study the district’s configuration in October 2018, trustees agreed it would be a good idea to look at something that hadn’t been reviewed since the new high school opened and the middle school was created 25 years ago. The motion was to “review configurations that support the best educational outcomes for students in addition to maximizing cost-effective education delivery.” A large operating deficit has made the second objective particularly pressing.

According to a Frequent Questions and Answers document on the SD64 website, the current configuration and B.C. Ministry of Education funding model will require the district to overspend its enrolment-based revenue by $1.1 million each year.

A funding protection grant triggered by the closure of the Windsor House school in North Vancouver and the resulting loss of 210 students has actually produced a $1.1-million surplus for 2020-21. This grant will be reduced by 1.5 per cent each year, or around $300,000, until the operating revenue aligns with actual enrolment revenue. That is expected to take place in 2027 — but the grant may not cover the operating deficit as early as 2024.

The district says it will not be able to balance the budget, as required by legislation, without making changes to configuration. And the longer it waits to take that step, the less surplus money there will be to make the configuration change a positive one.

“Delaying balancing the budget erodes the potential benefits of funding protection and decreases the district’s ability to update curricular resources, invest in classrooms, and bring much-needed funds to arts, music, athletics and specialty programming,” the FAQ states.

Parent concerns about the Pender Hub proposal, with a mandatory junior high program for southern Gulf Islanders and optional senior high to be added to the current school, are largely centred on decreased opportunities for kids in the southern Gulf Islands. Educational and social limitations are predicted, as many wonder how the smaller Pender school could offer things that Gulf Islands Secondary School does, such as sports teams, special clubs like robotics or electives such as metalwork. Parents have also questioned whether facilities like Pender’s gym will be sufficient for older, larger students.

Trustees have also been working through those same concerns.

“I certainly don’t want to be taking opportunity away from any student in this district,” said Mayne Island trustee Janelle Lawson.

Lawson reported a majority of Mayne Island parents favour the Pender Hub idea, but said she’s not sure she can support making the grade 8/9 years mandatory.

Pender trustee Greg Lucas noted his community’s school was designed with provision for high school classes and said principal Adrian Pendergast is confident the gym and other areas are sufficient. Lucas added the school has an excellent music program led by a teacher with a doctorate and already has a soundproofed music room. As well, he indicated Pendergast is excited about the possibility for growing the school and has a vision for its future programming.

Chaya Katrensky, trustee for Saturna Island, noted there is a lot of focus on making sure the Pender school will have the same sort of offerings as GISS.

“I think we need to recognize there’s incredible value in offering difference as well,” Katrensky said, noting the success of the Saturna Ecological Education Centre, which attracts students from all over the province. A focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Pender has been suggested as one possibility.

Salt Spring trustee Tisha Boulter said she thinks staff have presented good options and that it’s fiscally responsible to make a decision in November so there will be enough money to make the big changes proposed.

“I’m not sure the extra time is going to warrant a better result when it comes to the data that comes in,” Boulter said.

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