SD64 reconfiguration possibilities laid out

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The Gulf Islands School District’s senior administrators have provided more information on how schools could be reconfigured across the district and what that would do for balancing the operations budget.

School District 64 is currently in funding protection with the Ministry of Education but must find the savings to eliminate a budget shortfall of $1.1 million or more as required by the Schools Act. District superintendent Scott Benwell and secretary treasurer Jesse Guy presented five potential scenarios to achieve that by shifting how schools are arranged in terms of grades and island constituents during a special committee of the whole meeting on Thursday evening.

“We recognize the emotion, energy and anxiety for some as we move through this process together — and in fact it’s no different for us,” Benwell said in opening the presentation.

Scenarios included in the modelling are the status quo, and the configuration model staff were directed to study more deeply in June that would involve closing Salt Spring Middle School and having students on the other Southern Gulf Islands attend grades 8 and 9 on Pender. Three other potential scenarios were also provided and show how variables such as unique geographic funding would be impacted.

School districts that are unable to submit a balanced budget face the prospect of being replaced by a ministry-appointed trustee.

“We don’t want to lose our autonomy. We don’t want our future determined by outside forces,” Benwell observed.

Guy said the district has implemented cost-cutting measures that will make up for some of the shortfall. Challenges in addition to the funding model are the district’s geography, a high number of facilities compared to students and a trend in declining enrollment that’s expected to continue based on island demographics for pre-school aged children.

Resident student enrollment in SD64 peaked at approximately 1,840 students in 1994-95 when the current configuration was established. The district currently has around 1,450 resident students, but the number could dip as low as 1,220 by 2025-26.

Guy noted the district is trying to better rationalize equity of spending and equity of services for all schools and islands. At the moment, water taxi costs mean a much higher portion of the deficit stems from the outer islands: $2,060 per SGI student compared to $670 for Salt Spring.

Variables that could produce savings include a potential $450,000 per year to be gained from closing Salt Spring Middle School. Consolidating bus routes so that one Salt Spring route is eliminated would potentially save $45,000, while eliminating all school bus service across the district would save $675,000.

In order to keep the status quo school configuration, district staff suggest they would need to end all school bus service, find $250,000 from school budgets, cut $75,000 in student boarding subsidies and find $160,000 in other district savings.

At the opposite end in the range of possibilities is a scenario that imagines moving Galiano, Mayne, Saturna and Pender schools to a K-12 model, with no change to configuration on Salt Spring. This model would mean a unique geographic grant of $1,020,000 due to all students attending their neighbourhood schools (and where those schools are located), as well as more than $1 million saved by not having water taxi costs. Though the scenario is far-fetched, staff said the $1.045-million surplus produced could go toward providing more programs on the Southern Gulf Islands.

The scenario singled out for greater study in June still includes cuts to school and district budgets, as well as the SIMS closure and one bus route cut. It would bring in an extra $230,000 in unique geographic funding and allow for an annual surplus of $35,000.

The initial release of the scope of opportunity document outlining this scenario produced considerable concern for families who don’t live on Salt Spring. District Parent Advisory Committee rep Jonathan Lane forwarded a number of concerns from parents to the session, but Lane said he had a list of 50 people who had questions for him to pass on. Lane noted his high school-aged son has been able to take part in things like robotics and band. If the Southern Gulf Islands students are sent to Pender for grades 8 and 9 instead of Gulf Islands Secondary School on Salt Spring, he doesn’t think his daughter now at Mayne Island Elementary School will have those same opportunities, and many other parents feel the same way.

An action line in the scope of opportunity directing staff to look into special programs likewise rang alarm bells for many as French Immersion, the Gulf Islands School of Performing Arts and other programs suddenly seemed to be at risk.

District staff said the modelling does not project cutting programs and they are in fact optimistic these can be maintained. As for French Immersion, Guy suggested that under the Pender hub scenario, more students from across the district might be able to attend instead of mainly Salt Spring kids since there would be more room on the water taxi. The program could perhaps offer selection by a lottery system.

An opportunity offered by opening a second regional high school on Pender would be the chance to focus on an attractive speciality, for example the sciences, Guy suggested.

Individual questions from the general public were not heard at Thursday’s session. Parents and other community members are encouraged to use the Feedback form on the sd64.bc.ca website. All feedback will be included in the board’s next meeting agenda.

Thursday’s Zoom meeting was recorded and a full transcript will be available within two weeks on the meeting date. The most recent reports with modelling and other data are available now on the website.

The school board will discuss input received at their next committee of the whole meeting in October and are expected to vote on a configuration decision at their November board meeting.

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