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Decision time is coming for Masset schools

School board to decide soon whether to close Tahayghen Elementary School
Built for up to 450 students in 1969, Tahayghen Elementary has just 62 enrolled this year. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer) Built for up to 450 students in 1969, Tahayghen Elementary has just 62 enrolled this year. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Could a single school in Masset better serve students and the community?

In 2001, the Haida Gwaii school board studied that question and answered “no,” despite a staff report that recommended closing Tahayghen Elementary and renovating what is now Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay into a kindergarten to Grade 12 school.

On Tuesday, the board will meet in Old Massett to face the same question but with added pressure to choose a single school.

“Seventeen years later, we’re sitting here faced with a dilemma that you do or you don’t, or somebody’s going to come and do it for us,” said Trustee Wilson Brown, speaking at a Masset council meeting last week.

Enrolment is key

Just like 2001, the core issue today is falling enrolment.

Back then, the 1997 stand-down of the CFS Masset military base was relatively new — the opening of the base and the dozens of new families it brought to Masset was the main reason Tahayghen was originally built in 1969.

Since B.C. school districts are funded largely on a per-pupil basis, the two aging schools had rising costs but less and less funding coming in after the military families left and student numbers fell. Tahayghen was also up for a costly seismic upgrade for its double gym.

Today, the student numbers have fallen even further than expected.

Tahayghen now has just 62 students in a school built for 450, and it may lose another 15 or 20 students when Old Massett’s Chief Matthews Elementary School expands to offer Grades 6 and 7, likely next school year.

Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay currently has 93 students in a school with space for 350, and this year’s graduating class is one of the largest seen in recent years.

While the district doesn’t budget this way, the result is that Tahayghen now costs $300,000 more in annual salaries and utility costs than it gets in per-pupil funding.

Big bills at Tahayghen

And once again, Tahayghen in particular is also facing some big repair bills.

Just the materials cost for all the new plumbing, electrical, exterior, interior and heating work the school needs over the next two years comes to $4.9 million, and those are Vancouver prices. With labour, the total could be as high as $7 million to $10 million.

Speaking at two public meetings in March and the Masset council meeting last week, Superintendent Dawna Day said the overall building costs have risen to the point where they could start to hurt education programs.

“We recognize, so much, that this is emotional, that this is challenging, that people have strong connections to the school. The last thing we want to do is to close a school, or take a school away,” Day said.

“But again, we’re faced with all those things that are preventing us from doing the job that we need to do to help kids be successful in life.”

Stand-alone gyms?

At the Masset council meeting, Councillor Barry Pages asked why the district is isn’t looking to do what it recently did in Sandspit — knock down the old, oversized elementary school and build a smaller new one while keeping the old gym?

Day said the trouble is B.C.’s education ministry won’t fund a new Masset school, even a small one, so long as there is more than enough space at GTN for all the students combined. The ministry is not obliged to offer a separate elementary and high school.

“It’s part of the reason why we’re big-time stuck,” Day said.

However, Day said the district is looking to see if it might be able to keep Tahayghen’s double gyms, and lease them back to a community group.

Day said the board has looked and so far found no business case for funding Tahayghen’s $4.9 million materials bill by renting out space — the district does not want to raise rents for its existing tenants, Northwest Community College and Haida Gwaii Rec, because they offer such community benefit.

Likewise, she said an offer to outfit the school with a wood-fired boiler, such as the one that now heats Port Clements Elementary, might help with operating costs, but not the major repairs.

Maintenance history questioned

At the public meeting in Old Massett, Reg Davidson, a former school trustee, asked how it was that Tahayghen has become the costlier school to run, given it was built in 1969 and parts of the high school date back to 1953?

Lao Peerless, the district maintenance supervisor, said partly it’s because Tahayghen has a steel structure that was poorly insulated and seismically prepared, while GTN is largely wood-framed and better insulated.

But Day said it’s also a matter of what major projects the education ministry chooses to fund.

In the last two years, GTN got a new roof, new floors, a new boiler, a renovated home economics room and new glass doors.

“That wasn’t because we didn’t put in a request to do things at Tahayghen, it’s because the ministry chose to do things at GTN,” said Trustee Elizabeth Condrotte, noting that funding for some of those projects, such as the new roof, came as a real surprise.

“It was money that came raining down, and we had to spend it on that.”

Student safety a top concern

Back in 2001, 110 of the 138 people who answered a survey about moving to a single K to 12 school in Masset opposed the idea, and many listed student safety as their top concern.

Dave Reynolds, chair of the Tahayghen Parents Advisory Council, said that is still a key issue for parents.

Not only is there concern about bullying and other problems when younger and older kids share a single school, but Reynolds said parents objected the district’s rough sketch of what a K to 12 school might look like, which showed a new daycare and StrongStart building next to busy Collison Avenue and a gas station, with a pub just down the street.

“There is physical space in that school, but there is no room for elementary students in that school,” Reynolds said.

Denise Collison, another parent, suggested at the Old Massett meeting that if the board does decide to amalgamate, the elementary wing and daycare of the renovated high school should face the north-side sports field or wooded area, rather than the busy street.

Day and Peerless have said that may work, noting that the K to 12 sketch the district presented is only a starting point.

“We didn’t want to spend the money to get a complete plan drawn up when no decision has been made,” Peerless said.

Chief Matthews set to expand

For parents concerned about sending their kids to an elementary school downtown, Old Massett Chief Councillor Duffy Edgars offered another option — send them to Chief Matthews.

“I think one of the reasons for Tahayghen not getting a new school is because of Chief Matthews. We have 90 students over there, of our students, and I’m very proud of that,” he said, noting that the school is open to Haida and non-Haida children alike, has plans for a new gym, and will hopefully have a nearby swimming pool one day, too.

“If you guys are concerned about the safety of your kids… the option is there.”

One other issue that was raised a few times — parents’ safety concerns about the men who regularly spend much of their day around Main Street or Collison Avenue — was pretty well swept off the table by Elizabeth Moore at the meeting in Old Massett.

“They’re not here to defend themselves,” she said, suggesting that people with such concerns spend more time at Sharing and Caring on Tuesdays.

“If anyone wants to talk about ‘downtown’ and the people who are walking around, I think you need to go and have a tea or coffee discussion with the friends that you have to get it out of your system, and not come here with that kind of judgment,” she said.

North-enders make it work

At the close of the meeting in Old Massett, none of the five school trustees announced how they would vote on closing Tahayghen, but they did promise that this board would not leave the question unanswered.

Speaking for people in northern Haida Gwaii, Chairperson Harmony Williams said she is well aware of the apparent disparity between Masset’s two old schools and the relatively new ones in Port, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte and Sandspit.

“We’re used to always feeling like we’re always getting what’s left over, or that we have to struggle a little bit harder than everybody else to get the same thing,” Williams said.

“Because of that, I know that no matter what decision comes out of this, whatever position we’re put in, we’re going to make the best of it. We’re going to get together and make sure it works for us.”

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