Public asked to imagine future for Masset schools

School trustees want to hear what people think is the best possible future for Masset schools.

School trustees want to hear what people think is the best possible future for Masset schools.

Tahayghen Elementary and Gudangaay Tlaat’sgaa Naay Secondary are both aging, costly buildings built for many more students than they currently have.

Options include combining the two Masset schools into a single building, or looking into whether Tahayghen might somehow be combined with Chief Matthews School in Old Massett.

During a Sept. 27 school board meeting, Trustee Harmony Williams suggested it was time to ask the public what they would like to do.

“I think we’re overdue in that,” she said.

Since 2011, the Haida Gwaii school board has included an architectural study in its five-year capital plan that suggests the province consider building a new $24.3-million school just east of the existing high school that would combine Tahayghen and GTN into a single building with separate wings. It would also have space for a daycare and Northwest Community College classes.

The study also includes a slightly less expensive option to retain some of the existing high school, and another to renovate the existing building for about $5 million.

Sending the study to the province does not mean the school board has made a final decision on whether to combine Tahayghen and GTN, which is an unpopular idea for several parents.

In fact, by going ahead with what will likely be a $3.4-million exterior renovation to GTN, the school district is less likely to secure funding for a brand-new school.

“They’re not going to like that we demolished hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of work,” said Williams.

Renovations aside, B.C.’s education ministry has said many times that only growing school districts are likely to see new schools built any time soon.

“We’ve been told, really, to keep dreaming,” said Secretary Treasurer Shelley Sansome.

“Because we’re in declining enrolment, they’re not willing to fund us for a replacement school. That’s why we continue to push for a renovation.”

Rather than a new school for $24.3 million, trustees decided to narrow the list of options to a $5-million interior renovation of GTN that would allow the existing building to also house Tahayghen Elementary.

According to the 2011 study, combining the schools could save the school board well over $300,000 a year on heating and staff costs. It may also include the sale or lease of the current Tahayghen property.

Built in 1970, Tahayghen needs more work than GTN, mainly because it has a steel structure that is less adapted to earthquakes than the wood-framed high school.

Even after some of its classrooms were combined, Tahayghen has about 60 students in a building designed for 390.

Likewise, GTN is designed for 350 students but has just over 100 a number that is expected to fall below 50 by 2025.

Principal Bernadette Marie said some students were already asking last year if parts of GTN might be closed to make the building feel less empty.

“You go down the halls, and there’s nobody there,” she said.

“They want to see more life.”

Steve Goffic, the district facilities manager, said that even if the province did decide to fund a brand-new school, with only 160 students it would have to be much smaller than Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary in Skidegate.

“We have a giant building here that we could save,” he said.

Some parents and instructors at the meeting raised the possibility of combining Tahayghen with Chief Matthews, which is run by the Old Massett Village Council.

“We’re splitting a really small population of kids in two,” said parent Kyla Mitchell.

“I would like to see someone look into the possibility of amalgamating the two elementary schools I know there are many issues.”

Among the issues is the fact that Tahayghen teachers are unionized, while Chief Matthews teachers are not. That has at times presented roadblocks for people like Marni York, who needed special permission to teach Haida cultural programs at the Masset schools because she is not a certified teacher.

“I’m not certified, but I’m very qualified,” said York. “And I’ve had a certified teacher tell me, ‘I’m certified, but I’m not qualified.’”

“It’s ironic all the way around.”

Parents, teachers and other community members will soon receive a questionnaire from the school district asking for their ideas on the best plan for the two Masset schools.

Whatever the future brings, Superintendent Dawna Johnson-Day asked everyone to remember that what matters is what happens inside the schools, not the buildings themselves.

“Regardless of whether it’s the biggest house on the street or the smallest and most run-down, it’s the kindness and the caring in a building that makes that building rich,” she said.