Hope and anger greet decision to close schools

NANAIMO – School board votes to close schools, extend closure consultations during Wednesday's board meeting.

Nanaimo school trustees voted to close five school sites, turn a secondary school into an elementary school and extend consultations on two more schools proposed for closure at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Almost 200 parents, students and district employees packed into Nanaimo District Secondary School’s gymnasium to hear trustees debate the proposed 10-year facilities plan, which calls for major changes, including school closures, rebuilding facilities and adding enrichment programs.

Dave Hutchinson, superintendent of schools, told the crowd the district’s fiscal challenges have meant trustees have been cutting and slashing budgets for a decade, 40 per cent of school facilities are beyond their useful life and while Nanaimo and Ladysmith populations have increased by 17,000 since 2001, district enrolment has decreased by more than 3,500 students in that same time frame.

“We have definitely spread ourselves too thin over too many facilities and you can actually see the impact of that on student learning,” he said. “We have to focus on significant structural changes so we can manage the budget challenges.”

In the south end, trustees voted to close South Wellington this year, Cedar Secondary at the end of next year and Woodbank Primary and North Cedar Intermediate in June 2015, reopening the Cedar Secondary building as an elementary school in the 2015-16 school year.

Secondary students in Cedar can attend either John Barsby or Ladysmith Secondary.

The decision to close South Wellington was met with shouts of dismay from emotional parents and community members, some of whom walked out of the meeting as soon as trustees passed the bylaw.

The school board also decided to close the buildings that house the junior and senior learning alternatives programs, moving both programs to NDSS with the majority of junior learning alternatives students accommodated at their catchment schools.

Staff proposed a number of changes to the plan that were accepted by trustees, including extending school closure consultation periods for North Oyster and Davis Road elementary schools until December to consider alternatives; reconfiguring Ladysmith Secondary School as a Grade 7-12 school instead of adding Grades 6 and 7 to the school; and postponing the relocation of Woodlands Secondary students to NDSS until a new facility is built there.

Motions to build an addition to the Hammond Bay Elementary School gym and initiate enrichment programs at Randerson Ridge Elementary School and John Barsby Secondary School passed.

Trustee TerryLynn Saunders opposed the decision to close Cedar Secondary, North Cedar and Woodbank.

She said at first she was in favour so that students could have more course and program options, but then she remembered the reason a high school was built there – to keep the kids in the community and in school.

Cedar students may not be able to access the extra-curricular activities that keep students in school if they go to Barsby, said Saunders.

Trustee Donna Allen, who voted to keep South Wellington open in 2009, said the promise was that there was going to be more kids in the school and instead there are fewer.

“Am I happy with closing schools? No,” she said. “I feel sad that these people have to lose their community schools.”

Trustee Sharon Welch said the board recognizes that some people are upset about the school closures, but if the district doesn’t move ahead with this plan, schools are going to lose programs and other supports down the road.

Parents expressed a mixture of hope and sadness, relief and frustration after the meeting.

Janis Chung, a Pauline Haarer parent, is optimistic about the plan.

“If the experts are saying that this is going to free up money and allow our schools and our classrooms to get the support they need, then I am going to have to trust that,” she said, adding she would have liked to see a proposal to start up a late French immersion program in the plan.

North Oyster parents Wendy Wise and Fiona Steeves felt that in giving the school another year, district staff and trustees had listened to what the community had to say.

“It means it’s not going to be a relaxing summer holiday because we have a lot of work to do,” said Wise.

“There’s so many opportunities our school has and we have a good building,” said Steeves.

“People are ready to be involved in making things happen. I am really sad that Cedar is not going to have a high school.”

Tiffany Nelson, whose daughter attends South Wellington, said the school is a hub for the entire community, not just school-aged families, and many people are frustrated and profoundly disappointed about Wednesday’s decision.

“The consultation process was all about going through the motions rather than actually hearing community members,” she said. “We need to have a town hall meeting and see what direction the community wants to take.”

Only elements of the plan to be completed in the first two years of the 10-year plan were voted on Wednesday. Staff will now prepare the final facilities plan for submission to the Education Ministry.

To view a copy of the plan, please go to www.sd68.bc.ca.