Superintendent looks ahead to 2018 projects

Nanaimo school superintendent John Blain heads into last few months on the job

Nanaimo’s new artificial turf field is “pretty impressive” says John Blain, Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District superintendent.

“I do have a little experience with artificial turf and I think it’s one of the best turfs I’ve ever walked on,” said Blain, a former CFL player. “The most impressive part about the field in my mind is it’s significant that the city and school district worked on this together and collaborated into something very, very positive for both the school system and the community.”

The sod was turned for the joint project, an estimated $3.6-million artificial turf field at Nanaimo District Secondary School, in July and this past fall, the John Barsby Bulldogs broke it in with a victory against the Langley Saints. A grand opening is expected in February.

Blain discussed the field, along with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on class size and composition, the district’s financial position and his focus for 2018, during a recent year-end interview.

According to Blain, the supreme court ruling and implementation of previous contract language was the biggest challenge of 2017; it’s been a lot of work and the district has hired 107 new full-time equivalent teachers.

Nanaimo school district has also created more than 70 divisions in elementary and secondary schools, has tightened up on out-of-catchment and changed some catchment boundaries such as between Park Avenue, Bayview and Georgia Avenue schools, reducing “hot spots” and shifting students to schools that weren’t quite full.

“We’ve been managing very well and some districts have had some struggles, but it’s been fortunate that we and the [Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association] overall have worked along together in a good fashion,” Blain said.

There are no teacher shortages, but there are vacant positions in specialty areas like school support teachers and counsellors, said Blain, who didn’t have the numbers but noted that overall the district is in “pretty good shape” compared to other districts and unfilled positions are not inhibiting the ability to work with kids.

School staff have also been working on options around an addition at École Hammond Bay and how to work a gym replacement into it, according to a business committee presentation in November. Blain wants to move forward two or three asset management projects in 2018, including the Hammond Bay school, which he called a No. 1 capital issue to the board.

“Now that we’ve completed Rutherford and [Frank J.] Ney, as we complete that, there’s a gymnasium that we need to do something with and we’ve been in discussions with the ministry about next steps for Hammond Bay,” he said.

One focus for Blain in the new year will be to get partnerships in a “good grounded place” so the district and its partners can move ahead on projects and he said there are lots of ideas, including conversations with Snuneymuxw about a skill and trade training program at Woodbank Primary. There’s also discussions about what the district can do in Departure Bay where it has two aging facilities and the City of Nanaimo has an aging recreation centre, and about the vision of education in Ladysmith.

“We’ve got a Davis Road property down there, we’ve got our French immersion moved, we have an aging facility in Ladysmith Intermediate and then we have a significant portion of properties at our secondary school along with the rec centre. Is there something we want to build that is kind of cool? Out of the box?” he asked. “Maybe it looks like a K-12 campus model.”

He expects in 2018, the biggest thing the district will experience is a need to continue to work together, pointing out in the past the district has struggled with all the different entities within it. He’s not just talking about unions, and/or First Nations groups, and/or parents groups, he said, but altogether.

“Having the BCTF contract pieces settled, all those types of things play at the continuity of collaboration and working together. In my mind, we’ve just started that positive relationship and made a lot of great steps,” he said. “It needs to continue.”

Blain also said in the previous school year the district moved into non-deficit funding for the first time and began to see increasing enrolment and this year people will start to see money come into the system and that the district has to learn how to spend it wisely. It’s about a student focus on learning, not about anything else, he said.

Blain retires in August, after about four decades working in education, including 20 in Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District.

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