School district considers new configuration options

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Gulf Islands school trustees received more information last Wednesday on possible school configuration scenarios and how they might impact the operating budget, which is currently projected to produce a $1.1-million annual deficit unless something changes.

Senior staff presented some new cost modelling during the school board’s committee-of-the-whole meeting on Oct. 28, following requests from trustees and community members at the September board meeting.

These included a slight variation on the previous scenario preferred by staff, which would close Salt Spring Middle School, make Salt Spring elementary schools for grades K to 7 and create a junior high program on Pender for all southern Gulf Islands students in grades 8 and 9. The variation would establish the new catchment area but allow some students on the outer islands to attend school on Salt Spring in grades 6 to 9 for special programs like French Immersion and the Gulf Islands School of Performing Arts, or if they needed to access learning services.

Both of the above scenarios would additionally require finding $250,000 of savings in school and $160,000 in administration budgets, and consolidating two Salt Spring school bus routes.

District secretary-treasurer Jesse Guy explained a junior high program with no exceptions for outer islands students would allow the district to achieve a modest surplus of $55,000 per year with the additional funding awarded by the Ministry of Education for students attending smaller, remote schools. The revised scenario with some students attending school on Salt Spring would potentially create a $5,000 deficit.

“So we would have less revenue for unique geographical features, but it is still doable and there would be room on the water taxi,” Guy said.

A completely new scenario in the modelling has outer islands students attending high school on Salt Spring starting in Grade 9 as they currently do, but has Salt Spring students start in Grade 8 with the middle school closed. That is projected to create a $50,000 deficit, and would also require finding other savings — imagined in the modelling as cutting all funding for boarding students, charging school bus transportation fees and cutting itinerant staff that serve all the islands.

Creating a Pender hub with completely optional junior high and grad programs would likewise involve finding savings in multiple areas, while attendance is projected to be low, reducing the potential for program offerings at that school.

Guy suggested it’s a question of balancing objectives, and whether having more choice is worth losing other things.

“By reducing the revenue you’re actually reducing the programming that’s available to everyone in the district,” Guy said, noting that includes Gulf Islands Secondary School.

Adrian Pendergast, who is principal of the Pender and Saturna schools, gave a convincing presentation on the Pender facility’s potential as part of the information session. He noted there are separate wings for K to 7 grades and for junior-secondary high school classes. Improvements to equipment mean media arts will be possible at the school soon, and space is being renovated to improve the science lab. There is room for other renovations and repurposing if the fuller junior high program goes ahead.

Pendergast explained that many of the programs parents have specifically mentioned as potentially not being available at Pender are already taking place there. These include a travelling basketball team, drama and woodwork.

“We do have a great facility capable of growth. With increased critical mass, I would be excited about the benefits and the educational experience for our students in Grade 8 and Grade 9,” Pendergast said.

Administrative staff have suggested the school could specialize in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) studies as an attractive feature. Pender has excelled in this area recently: students took home the first-place prize in every age category at the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair in 2019. The music program led by teacher Ben McConchie has also been recognized.

The Pender junior high cohort would average between 35 and 40 students if the mandatory outer islands catchment area was established. Staff said there could be up to five teachers for the different subjects, not just one or two teachers for everything, although those teachers wouldn’t all have full-time hours.

Opposition to the idea of a mandatory junior high program on Pender has been especially high on Galiano Island. Caitlin Pencarrick Hertzman, who chairs the Galiano Parent Advisory Committee and is the District Parent Advisory Committee representative to the school board, observed the board said it would move forward on reconfiguration “with strong support.”

“In terms of support, there’s been strong opposition to these changes,” Hertzman said.

DPAC has repeatedly asked the district to slow down the reconfiguration process.

The school board has identified its Nov. 18 meeting as the date when a reconfiguration motion might be considered.

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