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School closures imminent, but which ones yet to be determined

School closures are coming in May in School District 79.

But just which schools and how many from a list of 10 is yet to be determined, depending on the eventual restructuring model the district chooses from three possibilities.

Schools on the list proposed for closure include: A.B. Greenwell Elementary, Alex Aitken Elementary, Alexander Elementary, Charles Hoey VC facility, Crofton Elementary, Duncan Primary facility, Ecole Mill Bay Elementary, Koksilah Elementary, Somenos Elementary and Yount Elementary.

No current middle or secondary schools are on the chopping block.

Official trustee Mike McKay will announce a final decision May 15 following a series of public consultation meetings (see sidebar).

District superintendent Joe Rhodes, secretary-treasurer Bob Harper and McKay presented a restructuring plan — Today, Tomorrow and the Road Ahead — to the public Wednesday night at Quamichan Middle School. The report includes not only options for school closures, but program consolidation, prioritizing services and related matters.

The trio said declining enrollment and rising costs have made reconfiguration a necessity.

"We have to be doing something different and it can't just be turning the heat down,'' said McKay in the bid to cut costs.

"It's much more substantial than that. There has to be some major restructuring.''

Costs to operate the district are far greater than the funds it receives to provide programs and services. The district anticipates a $3.7 million deficit for the 2013-14 school year, given the educational funding formula is unlikely to change.

Projections determine the deficit would increase to more than $15 million in five years without structural changes and achieving operating efficiencies.

Previous public consultation meetings helped staff formulate some new ideas for consideration.

Rhodes announced the three options being considered are as follows: 1) maintain the current mix of configurations of elementary, middle and secondary schools and close some elementary schools; 2) move to a middle school model across the district with a configuration of Kindergarten to Grade 5 elementary, Grade 6 to 8 middle and Grade 9 to 12 secondary; or 3) eliminate middle schools all together and move to a Kindergarten to Grade 7 elementary and Grade 8 to 12 secondary situation throughout the district.

Each scenario would involve different school closures and it really gets complicated taking all of the implications for the West, North, South and Central zones into account.

In formulating the options, Rhodes said the district looked at "how can we be more effective in how we place our kids in and around the valley?''

He added each of the pathways for restructuring comes with a different set of consequences.

"The first is could we survive with a grade configuration?'' he pondered. "We will need to consolidate our elementary schools.''

In the second configuration, Rhodes said the district looked at how to maintain all programs, maximize school space and reduce inefficient buildings.

In the third possibility, "basically you load up the elementaries and reuse the middle schools in a different way,'' said Rhodes.

"It's important to note no one proposal could close every school on the list,'' said Harper.

Once a decision is reached, "it's going to look and feel like a different district,'' said Rhodes.

The provincial budget due March 15 creates even more uncertainty.

"We've engaged in self-help,'' said McKay of the proposals. "This isn't simply standing back and saying, 'send us more money.'''

In the meantime, "our job is to throw out the dialogue and engage the conversation,'' said Rhodes.

Fiscal challenges are one thing, but Rhodes acknowledged there are still educational challenges that must be met.

"In my mind, high school graduation should be a given in this world and we're not there yet,'' he said.

And there are still concerns about success rates for students in the Aboriginal community.

"Despite all of our great efforts, I think we need to take a step back and can we work smarter, can we work differently?'' pondered Rhodes.

"This is not a deficient place. Our kids can be as successful as anyone and our staff is as good.

"Configuration is not the catch-all for improving student achievement. It's the people in the building that make the difference.''

The packed house greeted the news with quiet, yet obvious concern as they digested the news. Look to future editions of the News Leader Pictorial for reaction.

Here's how to have your say

There are several ways for people to make their opinions known about the restructuring plans of School District 79.

Public consultation meetings will be held on Saturday, March 2 from 9 a.m. to noon at Chemainus Secondary School and 1 to 4 p.m. at Lake Cowichan Secondary as well as Saturday, March 9 from 9 a.m. to noon at Quamichan Middle School and 1 to 4 p.m. at George Bonner Middle School.

A public forum is set for Tuesday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Cowichan Secondary School, leading to the end of the consultation process on Tuesday, May 7. Official trustee Mike McKay makes his announcement on school closures Wednesday, May 15 during a board meeting at Cowichan Secondary School at 6:30 p.m.

In the meantime, people can also express their thoughts by logging on to the district's website.

Click on the restructure2013 link on the left hand side of the page for all the material presented at the Wednesday meeting.

Written comments can also be submitted to the board office or by email to restructure2013@sd79.bc.ca.

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