Report suggests closing schools

NANAIMO – Major changes could be in store for students, educators and community members in school district.

Major changes could be in store for students, educators and community members in Nanaimo school district if a consultant’s recommendations are followed.

School closures, rebuilding facilities, new programs and relocation of existing programs are all included in a report from Doug Player, a former superintendent of the West Vancouver School District, on what should go in Nanaimo school district’s 10-year facilities plan.

He presented his recommendations to trustees and a large crowd of parents, educators and students in Nanaimo District Secondary School’s gymnasium Thursday evening.

Recommendations include closing eight schools, rebuilding four schools, adding three new enrichment programs and relocating the learning alternatives programs and administrative functions.

Player said the district is dealing with deteriorating facilities – 40 per cent are beyond their useful life – empty space, dysfunctional buildings, a lack of program enrichment, staffing duplication and a large budget deficit.

“In my opinion, right now your students don’t have the facilities they deserve, they don’t have the achievement they should have,” he said. “Your teachers should have more resources.”

The district is trying to spread too few dollars across too many facilities and by massing students together, the district can improve course offerings, create better learning conditions and offer more resources to students, Player said.

In the first two years, he recommends relocating the learning alternatives programs to NDSS and the elementary Life Skills program from Rutherford to Fairview elementary schools; moving Cedar Secondary students to John Barsby and moving North Cedar, North Oyster, South Wellington and Woodbank elementary school students to Cedar Secondary, closing those schools; doubling the half-size gym at Hammond Bay Elementary School; moving Grades 11 and 12 students from Woodlands to NDSS; closing the District Resource Centre; and reconfiguring schools in Ladysmith.

In years three and five, Player proposes closing Woodlands and sending the junior students to NDSS; rebuilding NDSS; closing Ladysmith intermediate and building a new elementary school; rebuilding Cilaire Elementary; and closing Departure Bay Elementary and moving the students to Cilaire.

In the final five years, the report suggests rebuilding Rutherford; moving the District Administration Centre to the Selby Street site; and moving facilities functions to the Old Victoria Road site.

Player’s recommendations don’t stop at facilities.

He believes part of the reason for the popularity of the French immersion program is people feel this is the only way for their children to get enrichment and suggests initiating a pilot arts program at the new Cedar elementary and other enrichment programs at John Barsby, Randerson Ridge, Wellington, Dover and Cilaire to start, all of which will raise achievement expectations, with other schools jumping on board if these programs are successful and well received.

Player said the learning alternatives students should be at NDSS, where they can better access amenities such as the Career Technical Centre.

He estimates the plan will mean annual operational savings of about $1.3 million per year in the first five years of the plan and recommends disposal of some properties, with the money used to upgrade other facilities.

Trustees asked senior management to present a draft facilities plan to the board on April 24.

If the board approves the plan, consultation will take place during May and June.

Parents at the meeting had mixed reactions to Player’s report.

Andrea Bonkowski, a former trustee who advocated to keep South Wellington open in the past, said she was expecting South Wellington to be on the chopping block again, but many community members chose that area because they like the small school setting.

The Education Ministry announced Monday that the school was approved for seismic upgrades.

South Wellington parent Steve Bowen said the plan does not account for the importance of an environment where a child can ride his bike to a friend’s house after school.

“I think a strong community involvement will produce a happier student and a happier adult,” he said.

Jo Widmeyer, who has two children at Hammond Bay, liked many elements of Player’s plan.

“I like the fact that they’re trying to be more efficient,” she said. “I think it’s well thought-out.”

Widmeyer is happy that the Hammond Bay gym project is a priority because the half-size facility challenges teachers to provide a good fitness program for students.

Cedar resident Wendy Smith, who has two children in schools there, is excited about the suggested arts program at a consolidated Cedar elementary school and admitted she has been worrying that her children would fall short on opportunities in the area.

Ronnie Pakosz, a Cedar mom of four who advocated to keep Woodbank Primary open five years ago, is also worried that her kids won’t have as many opportunities in Cedar as elsewhere and she now believes, after watching her kids go through the system, that the small school model isn’t working for all kids.

“If it means better programs for our kids, I’m in support of [Player’s recommendations],” she said.