Closing Alex Aitken Elementary School not an option, say central district's parents
Keep Alex Aitken Elementary School open, boost student enrollment numbers, hike funding for therapy programs, and lobby Victoria for more money.
Those demands were voiced by central-area parents and teachers to Cowichan school-board brass during Saturday's vocally constructive meeting that packed Quamichan Middle School's gym.
Hot seats were warmed by chief trustee Mike McKay, superintendent Joe Rhodes, and secretary-treasurer Bob Harper.
They must slash some $3.7 million from Cowichan's 2013-14 school budget whose preliminary funding envelopes arrives March 15.
Hence public meetings in Cowichan's four zones for feedback on options for cutting bucks and maximizing efficiencies for our 7,700 pupils.
Central-zone options span changing the existing model, offering $527,000 in savings; rejigging to a Grade 6 to 8 middle-school model for $457,000 in savings; or creating a K to Grade 7/Grade 8 to 12 elementary-secondary school configuration, tapping $1.01 million in savings.
The existing model sees K to Grade 6 as elementary school, Grade 7 to 9 as middle, and Grades 10 to 12 as secondary.
All three options would see Koksilah or Alexander schools shut.
Option one and two would close Somenos school. Option two would axe Alex Aitken.
All options gather more kids in various central schools left open.
Folks sympathized with the board's catch-22 situation involving dropping student numbers — spelling less per-student funding, now at about $7,000 — rising operating bills, reductions in crucial programs, and imbalances in school populations.
Some imbalances stem from B.C. rules letting kids attend schools outside their neighbourhood catchment area.
For example, Alex Aitken, called by some the best school in Cowichan, is four students overcapacity; Alexander elementary has 238 unused capacity; Khowhemun elementary is 116 in unused capacity.
Leveling funding and "right-sizing" schools for Cowichan's 7,700 pupils won't be easy, stressed an affable McKay.
"We have to get to a place where there's a foundation to grow," he said, recognizing trends such as low First Nations student graduation rates, needed trades, and early intervention programs such as reading.
Grandparent Roger Dosman was upset there's just 14 hours of therapy help for some 350 SD79 kids.
"By age eight or 10, the damage is done. We expect total success for every child, and schools should get a fair shake."
That's hard, explained McKay, when about 91% of the board's current $73-million annual operating budget goes to staff and teacher wages.
But coming cuts will see about $192,000 carved from board office staff through attrition, retirements, redirection and more, McKay explained.
Parents demanded a long-term plan from the board handcuffed by inability to hike local taxes, or ability to run a deficit — a stand that saw SD79's former trustees fired and replaced by McKay.
Still, Dosman wanted McKay to hand Victoria another red-ink budget to underline funding shortages.
McKay refused, noting Victoria will ask what answers local folks found.
Meanwhile, Liz Compton insisted "it's all about the kids. After they cut more and more, how can the board ensure success?"
McKay and Harper stressed painful picks now mean more dollars for pupil programs.
"It becomes a degree of putting money into facilities or programs: we can't do both," said Harper.
Murray Villiers explained Cowichan's sinking enrollments are unnecessary, complaining provincial funds for private schools should be stopped, and given to public schools.
While most agreed on more money per student, Rhodes noted "a significant population in SD 79 doesn't attend the nearest school" creating inequities.
Still, Leah Smith insisted Alex Aitken is special as a magnet school.
"Each community is unique and has unique needs and demographics," agreed McKay, focused on highest quality of educational returns.
He noted 20% of locals head to school outside Cowichan, dunking enrollments and wilting local schools.
Staff is mulling ways to counteract that trend with trades programs, arts options and more.
Heather Lawrence said threats of school closures dash make student confidence. "Kids thrive on structure and routine."
Louise Vaillancourt said breaking apart popular magnet schools is wrong; Carrie Bradshaw demanded the board's long-term plan.
But McKay said the board doesn't know Victoria's five-year funding figure.
"The finding formula needs to be addressed because it was built in a time of growth."