One school or two?
That is the big question in Masset, one week after Haida Gwaii school trustees launched a formal consultation until April 3 on whether to merge Tahayghen Elementary with Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay Secondary School.
The idea isn’t new — the school board first considered it 17 years ago.
What has changed is how much emptier the schools are, and how many more repairs are needed, especially at Tahayghen. There is also an expansion planned for Chief Matthews Elementary School in Old Massett and a promise, made by the B.C. NDP government just before Christmas, of $265,000 for a school-run daycare in Masset that is expected to open this fall.
“Based on feedback from the public, I think it’s time to decide one way or the other,” said Superintendent Dawna Day, speaking at a Jan. 23 board meeting. A webpage inviting public feedback on the issue is now available at www.sd50.bc.ca.
Supporters of a single kindergarten to Grade 12 school in Masset say it would free up money spent on building upkeep that could instead be used to hire more teaching staff and run better programs.
Advocates for keeping two schools are concerned that younger children from Tahayghen and the daycare will be less safe at an all-ages school, especially one next to a busy gas station and two doors down from a pub.
Still others say the school board has so far failed to present all the information needed to make an informed decision, or outlined a clear plan for the community consultation.
“This is not something that’s going to be easy at all,” said Harmony Williams, a trustee and chair of the school board, speaking in the packed teleconference room at GTN last Tuesday.
No one at the meeting spoke in favour of merging the two schools, though some did voice support at an earlier meeting last May.
“We understand that you’re all saying ‘no,’ so what’s the solution?” said Williams, noting that the board hasn’t made up its mind yet.
“When you’ve got 60 kids and a school made for 450, I mean, some of you manage funding and can see where that is going.”
“Solutions are what we’re looking for.”
In a preliminary report to the board, Superintendent Dawna Day outlined reasons for supporting a combined school, and relatively soon.
Originally built for 450, Tahayghen has only 62 students enrolled this year, while GTN has just 93 in a space built for 350. Even if Tahayghen merged with a renovated GTN, enrolment would still be less than 50 per cent capacity — a trend that is not expected to change in the next decade.
Closing Tahayghen and moving to a newly renovated K to 12 school would save about $300,000 a year in staffing, goods and services, utilities, and other operational costs. Furthermore, the report notes that Tahayghen currently needs over $4 million in capital repairs and upgrades, not including the cost of meeting seismic standards.
“We are currently in a position where the continued operation of both schools limits our ability to support the best programs possible,” Day wrote in the report.
“If we continue discussions regarding the future of the two schools, we delay the ability to improve opportunities for students, either by putting dollars into expensive operational matters or by adding to an environment of uncertainty.”
Besides cost savings that could pay for specialist teachers such as a dedicated music teacher, Day noted all students in a combined school would have access to cooking, shop, and dedicated science classrooms.
Speaking with Teresa Downs, superintendent for the Ashcroft, B.C. school district, Day found that its board heard of the same many safety concerns about older and younger students being under the same roof before it combined an elementary and secondary school three years ago.
But the new building was designed so older and younger students did not regularly interact with each other, Day wrote, and the combined school at GTN would do the same, with separate wings for kindergarten to Grade 7 and another for Grades 8 to 12. A privacy fence would also go around the school daycare, and a safety fence around the elementary school playgrounds.
A proposed design for the new combined school shows the existing music room converted into a Strong Start and daycare space, while the GTN library would return to a gym.
“This design is certainly not final and subject to much further review and consultation with staff, students, parents, and members of the local communities,” Day wrote.
Parents and guardians question downtown location, process
At the school board meeting, parents and guardians told the board they had already rejected the idea of combining the schools before, most recently in 2011.
“Seventeen years ago, the public voted against it,” said Reg Davidson. “That was your direction, and I don’t know who re-opened it.”
“We may not be allowed to have a new school for another five, six years — whatever the ministry deems — but maybe it’s worth the people here holding out for a new school, instead of cramming us together,” said Johanne Young.
“Maybe you just have to wait until the option for a new school comes forward.”
Secretary-treasurer Shelley Sansome noted that the board has been applying for provincial funding to improve the schools in Masset for over 10 years, but the district won’t get any such funding while it has so much unused space.
“The ministry said they’re not providing us funding for these renovations, or for amalgamation, or for school replacement in Masset,” she said. “That’s beyond our control. We continue to ask, we continue to apply, but they said no because of the capacity that’s available in Masset.”
Tiffany Scholey cast doubt on the district’s enrolment projections, but added that if the schools are combined, the elementary playground should not face busy Collison Street.
Dave Reynolds, chair of the Tahayghen Parents Advisory Council (PAC) said the key sticking point for parents is having to send their young children to a school near a busy street and pub.
“We can all agree extra money would be great,” he said.
“But we need to assess the impact of kids being in the downtown core. I’m hearing from parents this week who are already looking at home-schooling options.”
Jason Thompson, a parent and councillor with the Village of Masset, said too much of what the board has put forward is still unclear.
“We need a consultation schedule, we need an engagement plan,” Thompson said, adding that the preliminary report is missing some important information, such as over how many years the expected $4 million in repairs at Tahayghen would need to be paid.
“We need adequate information to make a decision like this, and we keep bumping up against that,” he said, noting that parents raised the same lack of information issue last spring. “There’s a process issue here.”
Victoria Grosse, who is leading a community planning exercise in Old Massett, said consultation has been lacking so far.
“Just from whom I’ve spoke with in the community — it’s threatening,” she said. “It’s framed as, the school board wants to shut down our school.”
“You have these huge empty classrooms,” she said. “We have too much space — what can we do with it? I’d be more willing to talk with you about that than shutting down the school.”