COLUMN: School communities need stability

NANAIMO – Big changes could be on the way for students, staff and families in school district.

Big changes could be on the way for students, staff and families in Nanaimo school district.

Trustees approved in principal a proposed 10-year facilities plan – contingent on the results of a 60-day public consultation process that started Friday – that includes some wide-sweeping changes.

In case you are just tuning in, the plan calls for a net closure of 10 school buildings (eight elementary and secondary schools and both learning alternatives buildings), rebuilding four facilities, adding enrichment programs to a number of schools, relocating the learning alternative programs and administrative functions.

Over the next decade, the proposed changes would impact every secondary and many elementary schools in the district.

This is the second time in recent years major changes have been proposed. In 2008, the school board approved an $87-million plan that called for closing Woodlands and Nanaimo District secondary schools, with a new school built on the Woodlands site. The majority of the money – about $67 million – was to come from the province.

In 2009, a new school board quashed the plan and started over.

Having sat through the previous facilities plan consultation process, I have two main suggestions this time around.

First of all, I hope those who participate in the consultation process will come to the table having given careful thought to what staff have suggested.

If people don’t like the recommendations, be prepared to suggest alternatives – in a few cases, those who criticized the previous plan did not give any options other than the status quo.

Consultant Doug Player’s report, upon which this new plan is based, noted the district is dealing with deteriorating facilities – 40 per cent of which are beyond their useful life – a lack of program enrichment, empty space, unnecessary staffing duplication, architecturally dysfunctional buildings, budget shortfalls and below average student performance.

Barring a new government coming into power in May and infusing a whole lot more cash into the public education system than the B.C. Liberals have so far been spending, something needs to be done differently and that if the status quo remains, conditions will only worsen and students will lose.

My other suggestion is trustees make a decision and stick with it. Political waffling has been disruptive for school communities.

South Wellington, for example: this will be the fourth time in recent years that little school is recommended for closure and each time, emotions run high and parent resources have been directed toward fighting to keep it open instead of focusing on the learning going on inside.

A Cedar parent remarked that even if the small elementary schools in her community were kept open, she wonders if the issue would come up again two years later when the board was trying to find more money.

These communities deserve some stability.

Overall, it should be an interesting consultation period. The parents I’ve heard from are divided on the merits of the plan – some hope it means better opportunities for their children and others like the small school model.

The most vocal response has been from people from Ladysmith and Cedar – the two areas where there will be the most upheaval for students.

Cedar Secondary School students have concerns about the commute to John Barsby, as well as their ability to participate in extra-curricular activities.

North Oyster and South Wellington parents are concerned about the proposal to move students from those schools twice – once next year and then again in 2015.

Trustees have their work cut out for them, listening and responding to all these concerns.