The good news is that the Okanagan Skaha School District isn’t projecting any school closures over the next decade or so. The bad news is, enrolment is expected to continue declining for a couple more years, before it begins to climb again.
According to projections made by a consultant reviewing the facilities in the school district, that will likely result in continuing shortfalls, and the loss of up to 18 teacher positions over the next decade.
Starting last year, kindergarten enrolment started to increase, but secondary school enrolment will still continue to decline over the next 10 years, according to Hugh Skinner of Stantec Consulting.
“The real trick is figuring out where this is going to occur,” he said.
Since May 2010, Skinner has been trying to do just that, reviewing and preparing a Long-Range Facility Plan for the school district. Through the course of his review, Skinner assessed the condition of schools and other facilities in the district, as well as investigating how the schools are being used in light of projected enrolment and capacity.
“Your schools, in general, are in very good shape,” Skinner said.
The problems the school district will be facing come from changing demographics, as the baby boomer bubble continues to move through the student population.
According to statistics presented by Skinner, overall enrolment in the kindergarten to Grade 7 range is expected to begin to rise again starting in about 2013, but secondary schools can expect to see a continuing decline until at least 2019.
What that translates to for Okanagan Skaha, he explained, is continuing budget shortfalls into the future, if the provincial funding formula remains unchanged. He projects that by 2018, the district will be dealing with a cumulative impact of $1.7 million related to enrolment decline, the equivalent of 18 full-time teachers.
“What can we do with this bubble that is rolling through your community?” Skinner asked.
His recommendations for the school board include working with community partners to develop Neighbourhood Learning Centres and other mutually beneficial relationships, developing a shared curriculum at the two Penticton high schools and decommissioning areas of schools that are running below capacity.
“The one that stands out the most is Naramata. It is quite under capacity,” said Skinner.
Though Naramata Elementary has a capacity of about 175 students, there are only 76 students attending this year. Skinner’s projections show the number rising slightly, to level out at 90 students.
However, district secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden explained that simply closing Naramata or any other school would not be effective, since it would cause overcrowding at other schools. Decommissioning classrooms that are not being utilized fully would help lower both operation and maintenance costs at the schools.
As both their populations drop, Penticton and Princess Margaret Secondary Schools could become more efficient by developing a common education plan that would see core subjects at both schools, but focus “programs of choice” at the appropriate school.
“The idea is to get both schools on the same page — that it is a we philosophy,” Skinner said.
According Shongrunden, both the facilities plan and having it done by a third party are requirements of the Ministry of Education if Okanagan Skaha expects to receive provincial funding for capital projects in the future.
The last major capital project the school district received approval for, Shongrunden said, was the construction of the new Penticton Secondary School.