Decision time approaches for Masset schools

School board holding meetings on potential amalgamation of Tahayghen and Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay.

School trustees will soon decide whether to combine Masset’s two schools into a single building.

Built for many more students than they have today, both schools are ageing and costly to run.

Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay Secondary is already three times bigger than it needs to be and will likely have fewer students in future.

Tahayghen Elementary is just 16 per cent full and needs some pricey repairs and seismic upgrades.

“We’re at the point in Tahayghen now where the cost is really tipping the scale,” said Superintendent Dawna Johnson-Day, speaking at a special public meeting on May 18.

“It’s very expensive to run that school without the money impacting what we can do from an educational perspective.”

Parents at the May 18 meeting had mixed feelings about combining the schools — some raised security concerns, others were ready to start planning.

Harmony Williams, the school board chair and trustee for Masset, said her own thinking on the issue changed after a teacher made the point that a combined school could give Masset a new community core.

“The potential of what we could make this is kind of exciting,” she said.

“I’d never thought of it like that before.”

As Johnson-Day explained, all B.C. school districts get funded per student, not per school.

So long as enrolment remains low at Tahayghen, which needs the costliest repairs, there might not be enough money to keep it open. Both schools require $125,000 a year in utilities alone.

For the last 15 years, the school board has asked the province to consider providing funds for a brand-new school in Masset, or renovating Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay into a single kindergarten to Grade 12 school. So far, the province has yet to respond.

While it was in slightly better shape than Tahayghen, the Ministry of Education did agree to replace the old Agnes L. Mathers Elementary school in Sandspit.

But in that case, a new elementary school was the only practical option, and Sandspit’s new school is significantly smaller than the old one.

Johnson-Day said the school board hasn’t decided on amalgamation yet, and they plan to hold more public meetings on the issue, including one in Old Massett.

“If there are other solutions that work, that are cost-effective, they’re absolutely worth looking at,” she said.

Given that Tahayghen already rents out extra space and the district just sold the only non-school building that will actually result in direct revenue, other solutions may be limited.

John Disney, economic development officer for Old Massett, suggested the district consider installing a wood-fired heating system to cut costs, as Old Massett recently did for Chief Matthews Elementary and Port Clements did for its school.

Steve Goffic, who is just stepping down as maintenance supervisor, said the district will soon have enough carbon-tax credits to install some solar panels in Masset. But it’s not clear that either of those cost-saving options would be enough to offset the gap in funding.

During the meeting, some parents and trustees questioned the federal census numbers that are used to forecast enrolment — until 2025, Tahayghen is expected to remain at about 60 students, while Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay could drop by half from the 104 enrolled for next year.

According to Statistics Canada, almost 10 per cent of Masset residents and 6.7 per cent of Old Massett residents didn’t fully answer the census in 2016. But that non-return rate is not dramatically less than average, which is four per cent across Canada, and five per cent for B.C.

If the school board does decide to combine the Masset schools, Johnson-Day said a newly renovated Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay could open as early as September 2019.

To help guide the process, Johnson-Day said the district would assemble a steering committee of parents, students, teachers and other staff.

Harmony Williams said that while school trustees are looking to see how other districts have dealt with the same issue, it’s most important to hear from local parents and students.

“Building it right means listening to what you say first,” she said.

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