Gulf Islands School District staff will be spending the summer analyzing options for changing how schools are configured in the district with the knowledge that decreasing enrolment and government funding pose a major challenge to operations.
School district superintendent Scott Benwell and secretary treasurer Jesse Guy presented a “scope of opportunity” document to the board of education last Wednesday. The board agreed the ideas presented were worthy of deeper analysis and directed staff to come back with a financial and operational feasibility study in September.
“I think it’s really important to understand the challenge we do face,” Benwell said, adding that keeping the doors open to public education in the district will require everyone’s effort.
The opportunities to be explored include closing Salt Spring Middle School and changing elementary schools to cover grades K-7, and high school to grades 8-12. A new high school program and outer island hub is proposed for Pender Island, which would serve students from Galiano, Mayne, Pender and Saturna islands in grades 8 and 9.
Under the proposal, all district students could choose between attending their senior high school years at Gulf Islands Secondary School on Salt Spring or at the Pender school.
Staff will also review the provision of French programs including French Immersion and create a sustainability framework for all special programs under the scope of opportunity. The district is not contemplating changing the four-day school week but has acknowledged academic success has not been optimal in recent years, so staff will be investigating how to deliver the best programming under that model.
The district is currently under funding protection since an enrolment audit in 2017 caused the Ministry of Education to immediately withdraw nearly $700,000 in operational funding. Guy reported that School District 64 had been receiving transfers based on higher student counts than it currently has, and schools were likewise configured to meet that higher student count. The all-time high was about 1,800 students. There are currently 1,440 students enrolled.
Guy explained the ministry’s new funding model is set to reduce the SD64 budget by an additional $1 to $1.6 million, while data on current demographics suggests a continuing downward trend in students. She said the new configuration needs to support a budget that has the flexibility to absorb unusual events and circumstances, and also allows the district to make choices about what types of extras it can provide in addition to core education requirements.
“I firmly believe education is delivered best in a stable environment,” Guy said.
Staff and trustees agreed the ideas presented incorporate much of the input collected over months of public engagement.
But while many participants had supported the potential closing of the middle school, the proposal to send outer islands students to Pender for grades 8 and 9 caught parents off guard.
“The instinctual reaction is this is another us versus them, have and have-not situation,” said Galiano trustee Shelley Lawson, recognizing many parents on her island are already worried about how the change would impact their children. The ability to join sports teams is one major concern, as some feel outer islands students wouldn’t be given that chance if entering Gulf Islands Secondary School in Grade 10.
Lawson added that a successful transformation would depend on what programming would actually be made available at the Pender school, and said she hopes for “really juicy equitable opportunities.”
Kadek Okuda, a teacher at Mayne Island School who grew up in the district and attended middle school on Mayne, said there could also be social and educational impacts to joining GISS later.
Benwell said those questions are important. Administrative staff want to take the time to explore the concerns people are raising.
Staff outlined multiple factors as to why a grades 8 to 12 high school for all district students hasn’t been proposed at GISS. Guy explained it would require adding a third large water taxi to transport students for an annual cost of $350,000. At the same time, the district loses “unique geographical factor” funding for the outer islands students whenever they attend school on Salt Spring.
Benwell added that climate action has been recognized as a concern in the district, and a third diesel-burning water taxi would increase the environmental footprint. A third water taxi could be an option anyway, he said, but that would mean taking $350,000 from elsewhere, and that would probably impact employment.
As to why Pender was selected for the outer island hub when Mayne Island hosted a middle school in the past, Guy said the demographics strongly support the choice. As well, the Pender school is larger and better equipped. It was constructed to host high school as well as elementary school classes.
No changes to the district’s configuration would take place until September 2021. Families will be able to provide feedback on the scope of opportunity document and on the feasibility study once it is produced. See sd64.bc.ca for more information.