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

School board votes to close Tahayghen Elementary

Masset looks set to become a one-school town again.

Unless there is some major, unexpected change, by September 2020 Tahayghen Elementary will be closed and a redesigned Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay will be open for students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Haida Gwaii school trustees voted unanimously last week to start a two-year process for combining the schools.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” said Harmony Williams, chair of the school board, speaking at an April 24 board meeting in Old Massett.

“If, from now until then, all of a sudden we have all these businesses and partnerships that come and put resources into Tahayghen, obviously things change,” Williams added.

“But for now, we’re forecasting the future that we need to plan for.”

If Tahayghen stayed open — a future many north-end parents would prefer — the school district expects that by 2020 it would have fewer than 50 kids in building made for 450.

One reason is that by then Chief Matthews Elementary in Old Massett will have expanded to include Grades 6 and 7.

Such an enrolment drop would worsen the school’s operating deficit, which is already $300,000 a year. But the even bigger concerns are the $7- to $10-million in various upgrades the building would need by then, and the fact B.C.’s education ministry has so far shown it will not fund even a modest new school building in Masset while there is more than enough space at GTN for both elementary and secondary students.

Parent Jaskwaan Bedard said a new building is still worth fighting for. With newer schools in every other village on Haida Gwaii, she said Masset also needs “a space that tells our children they’re valued.”

“If we look at it in a different way, there will be answers,” she said.

Steve Querengesser, president of the Haida Gwaii Teachers’ Association, said teachers appreciate the two-year timeline that board set for consulting the public and finalizing a design for the combined elementary and secondary school.

Already, the district is considering parent suggestions such as having the elementary wing face the north side, away from busy Collison Avenue.

Regarding the expansion of Chief Matthews Elementary, which may draw students away from the school district, Querengesser urged the board to make a strong case for public education.

“I know that you, as a board, are responsible for advocating for public education, and education that’s accessible to everybody,” he said, noting that the ongoing decline in student enrolment means teachers and district staff are already dealing with job losses and reductions.

Superintendent Dawna Day said the board is a strong advocate for public education, especially in its recent efforts to change the way smaller districts are funded, but Day said they also recognize the Chief Matthews Elementary offers parents a valuable choice.

“We have no ill will toward Chief Matthews and we wish them the best,” she said.

Several parents and community members questioned the way the school board consulted on the closure decision.

After a roundtable meeting last year, the board announced formal consultations in February, and followed with an online survey, an information website, two public meetings, and special meetings with the parent advisory councils.

Earlier last month, Masset councillors told Haida Gwaii school trustees and district staff that the village might have been able to meet with provincial officials about the Tahayghen closure had they been involved in the consultation earlier.

In fact, last year the school board did consider a recommendation to set up a 17-person Masset schools committee — it would have included village and band councillors as well as parent groups, students, teachers, staff, and school district managers.

But trustees rejected the idea, partly because they felt such a 17-member committee was just too big to be productive.

At the April 24 meeting, Old Massett community planner Victoria Grosse and others said the public consultation the school board did do should have shown that the idea of a combined is unpopular. Many parents are concerned that the safety of younger students will be an issue in a combined school.

“Our people are so sick of being asked these questions, and then having the opposite happen,” Grosse said.

Harmony Williams said beyond the consultations done this year, the school board has been discussing the issue publicly since at least 2001, and student safety will be top of mind.

“Board after board were kind of passing this on,” she said.

“It’s not going to just keep getting passed on until we’re faced with this dire situation where we can’t fix Tahayghen, we can’t get money for it, and then what? That’s so irresponsible.”

Sharon Matthews, the education administrator in Old Massett and a former Haida Gwaii school trustee, said the decision to close Tahayghen was tough news.

“I’m feeling the grief in this room, even though it was news our community was prepared for,” she said.

If Tahayghen does close as expected, Matthews said it deserves to be recognized as a quality school that made great steps to become a welcome place for all students, Haida and non-Haida alike.

She also cautioned the board to take care with the name when it closes — Tahayghen was the Haida name of the renowned artist and hereditary chief Charles Edenshaw.

“That’s a big name in our Haida nation, so don’t take it lightly when you close the school,” she said.

“You have to keep that in mind.”

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