School closures may be on the horizon

Sixty-nine of the 175 classrooms in the district’s elementary and middle schools are sitting empty

School District 72 Superintendent Tom Longridge and Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Patrick presented the Board of Trustees with a report last week which will spur an in-depth, critical look at the district’s facilities, likely followed by some tough, unpleasant decisions about school closures.

“This (report) came out of the strategic planning process, and one of the key areas in the district in the plan was enhanced facilities for learning. We know that our facilities are closely related to how students perform in school and we want to look at always giving our students the best opportunities for learning,” said Longridge during the introduction to the Facility Review report they were about to present.

The goal of the Facility Review is, Longridge said, “to develop a long term strategy for our facilities, taking into account district challenges and demographics. We have to look at the reality of our buildings and we’ve got to look at the population in our community and that our population has decreased significantly over the past number of years.”

The last facility review was performed in 2001, Patrick told the board, and since that review was completed, there have been a lot of changes within the district.

“There are new neighbourhoods, there has been shifting and migration of people from some school neighbourhoods to other neighbourhoods, and there has been quite a significant decline in enrolment.”

Capital funding from the government, Patrick said, is contingent on the district making the best possible utilization of space, and, simply put, that’s not what is happening now.

According to the report, 69 of the 175 classrooms in the district’s elementary and middle schools are sitting empty, meaning 39 per cent of the classroom area within the district is considered “surplus.”

Another part of the report, the Facility Condition Assessment, produced by an independent entity that reports to the Ministry of Education, shows that the facilities in the district are also aging and in poor condition.

“Our maintenance crews will do their best to get out there and maintain our facilities, but it’s not just paint. It’s not just appearance,” Patrick said. “This goes into ‘how old is the mechanical system? When are we going to have to replace the boilers? When are we going to have to do the lights?’”

There are, in fact, many facilities in the district that would cost less to rebuild altogether than to continue to maintain, Patrick said.

“Whether the School District likes it or not, it’s something the Ministry (of Education) looks at,” Patrick said.

“When you put in a request for funding, for major renovations, for capital, they will look at the condition of the facility – they don’t want to be investing in an electrical upgrade when the whole building needs to be replaced – as well as looking at empty classrooms,” Patrick said.

“If you’ve got two schools with very empty classrooms, and you need to rebuild both, they likely will suggest to rebuild one.”

Essentially, the Ministry of Education wants to maximize their return on investment, and right now, they’re likely not getting enough bang for their buck in School District 72 in terms of capital funding.

In the end, it was decided to perform an in-depth facilities review to try and establish the best course of action to address this issue.

“It comes down to this: We’re building for the future, and having lost a couple thousand students over the last ten years, to stand by idly and say, ‘maybe we’ll grow back…’ well, things can’t just keep going the way they are,” Trustee Daryl Hagen said after the presentation. “Hard decisions are going to have to be made,” but added that he wants to get as much input from as many people as possible before those decisions are made.

Trustee John Kerr agreed.

“That surplus of space costs us money to maintain, and that money comes from an envelope that we receive from the Ministry of Education, and if that money is going to maintain old buildings and replace old systems, that money doesn’t go directly towards student learning,” Kerr said. “When we look at decisions we’re going to have to make down the road about these facilities it all comes back to enhancing student learning, and if we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep surplus facilities from falling down, that has an impact on student learning.”

“It’s not like this has caught us off guard,” Hagen added. “I mean, we have closed schools. Maple School, Evergreen School, Campbellton school. We’re always trying to do the best we can, and now we need to make some more decisions.”

“It’s time,” board chair Susan Wilson agreed.

The in-depth facility plan is to be drawn up and presented at the next public meeting of the Board of Trustees on Nov. 17 at 7:30 at the SD72 office on Pinecrest Road.