Some members of the Living Sky School Division board of education feel decisions made by past boards have come back to haunt them.
In discussing the overcrowding of elementary schools in the Battlefords, it was inevitable that the years-old decisions to close two junior high schools in the community would come up.
Living Sky is in the process of deciding what to do about overcrowding in schools such as Battleford Central School and Connaught Community School. The lack of a public junior high school in the community has Grades 7 and 8s housed in its elementary schools, and now the division is considering moving them to North Battleford Comprehensive High School (NBCHS), where there is space going underused.
The Ministry of Education has made it clear there will be no new elementary schools built, while indicating it will consider funding renovations at NBCHS to accommodate more students. A new junior high school seems not even to be in the picture.
The urgency of having to do something about the overcrowding by the 2013 school year also has some board members concerned that a rushed decision may be short-sighted. But the board chair, Ken Arsenault, Director of Education Randy Fox and board member Glenn Wouters, who sits on the committee that’s been dealing with the decision-making process, seemed satisfied that the board would be able to find a solution that would serve well for the next decade.
“We can say decisions in the past were wrong, but they were probably right for that time,” said Arsenault. He also said, “I think part of the issue should be that we forward plan.”
He noted some of the community’s elementary schools are going to be exceeding 50 years old in a short period of time; in fact, two of them are already there.
“These buildings are not going to last forever no matter how well they are maintained,” said Arsenault. “So we may be looking at new facilities for elementary as well.”
Fox said, “Unless something completely unexpected happens in the Battlefords, I don’t see the comprehensive being overcrowded within 10 years or even longer.”
Wouters suggested it’s not possible to plan further than that anyway.
“If you look at the history of the Battlefords, what’s happened is every ten years there’s been a shuffle of some kind of another, right from the beginning.”
He said, if the community were to see a 20 per cent increase in population 10 years from now, both the public and separate school boards would need new schools.
“In all likelihood, if the Comp is overcrowded and you’re building new schools, you may go back to Grade 7 [in elementary schools], said Wouters. “Grade configuration is not written in stone, it is flexible. I think all we can plan is for ten years, but I’m not scared of twenty per cent growth and, going down that route, the board of the day will meet that challenge.”
Board member Roy Challis, a member of the committee along with Wouters, said some could argue that some of the configuration problems of today are the results of short sighted decisions made by boards earlier. Regarding moving Grade 7s out of junior high, he said, “In my opinion it was a bad decision, I didn’t agree with it then and I don’t agree with it now.” He added, “Even closing the junior high in Battleford, I didn’t think that was the right thing to do, but we did it.”
Challis said, “I know we have to do something [about overcrowding] and I know we have space at the Comp that needs to be filled, but I hate to see us jump into ‘this’ and then say we should have done ‘that.’”
Challis also had concerns that the committee hasn’t fully explored other uses of underused space at NBCHS, especially considering the board’s interest in the academy model but its putting off any decision in that direction.
“If we were to look at a trades academy it may well be that’s the building it should be in because of the shops and things that are there. Meadow Lake’s campus for the regional college just put in a whole bunch of brand new welding stuff, while we’ve been under-capacity welding-wise at the Comp for years. That’s an area that could well be a growth area and could mean more funds for us if we could find a way to use all of that shop space … We didn’t explore that because we’ve got this pressing issue with overcrowding, but I think it may be short sighted of us to make this decision about the Grade 8s for sure without knowing what else we’re doing.”
Board member Rona Pethick said her caution and her concern is that they don’t opt for a short term fix.
“With the limited funds our division is facing every year I want to make sure the decisions we make are going to be long lasting as far into the future as we can anticipate,” she said. “With a potential $6 million cut in our budget, I want to make sure we are making sound decisions.”
Board member Garth Link commented, “This board funded a highly expensive, extremely detailed facilities review in 2008 and then chose to ignore the part that said the Grade 8s should be at the comprehensive high school. And here we are 2012-13 talking about the need for the Grade 8s to go over there. We are right back to that square right now.”
But Wouters remained optimistic.
“Let’s be positive,” he said. “We saw the opportunities that the Comp has for good programming. If we can get good space, then I think we’ve done our work well.”
He is looking forward to a report on what the Ministry of Education sees as possible as well as plans being prepared by an architect on behalf of the division.
“I’m waiting for that report, the exact questions we need answered before we can make our recommendations.”