After being closed for a nearly a decade, Nusatsum Elementary School (NES) will officially re-open as a school with grades five to seven scheduled to begin there in September 2018.
The school was “closed” as an elementary school in 2008 due to low enrollment but remained open to host other functions within the district, such as the School Board Office, the Bella Coola Archives, and three to four classrooms administered through SAMS.
In a Board Meeting held December 12, 2017, the Board revealed that it has a budget surplus of nearly $1.5 million dollars. It presented a cost analysis for the re-opening of NES and the Strategic Plan for the District which had been developed in May 2017.
“When the Board sets the budget there is a desire to maintain at least $300,000 of unrestricted surplus to ensure emergent issues can be addressed,” explained SD49 Superintendent Steve Dishkin. “Over the past five years, the district has accumulated prior year surpluses of close to $200,000 per year over and above this contingency amount. Our amended 2017-2018 budget and the 2018-2019 budget will show the expected areas of expensing this surplus to benefit students.”
The re-opening of the school will require a new principal and several new staff members, as well as renovations and restructuring to make it suitable for students.
“The capital costs are expected to fit within the five year capital plans for our district and are expected to be $160,000 of activities directly related to renovations and educational supplies,” said Dishkin. “The anticipated ongoing costs are close to $300,000 per year, though this is being closely examined over the coming months with budgeting processes occurring from March 2018-June 2018 for next school year.”
The District will not receive any additional funding to operate the school, as it was never officially “closed” but rather re-purposed as an alternative space. Funding is based on student enrollment, and Dishkin said growing enrollment, combined with the limits on class sizes due to the November 2016 Supreme Court ruling, were major factors in the decision to re-open the school.
In 2008, SD49’s total enrollment for K – 12 was 166. Current enrollment is now at 221 and is projected to reach 230 by 2018. Some grades at Bella Coola Elementary are nearing capacity and the district expects this trend to continue.
“We expect a healthy Kindergarten cohort next fall and would like to see the option for enrollment growth as well as providing space for experiential learning,” said Dishkin. “When the decision was made to move the grade five class to BCE and the 6-7 classes to SAMS/NES in 2009 it was meant to be a temporary measure with the hopes of enrollment growth.”
Marc Hedges, President of the Central Coast Teacher’s Association, says the CCTA’s main concern with the move is maintaining sustainable staffing levels and ensuring a smooth transition for students.
“Our number one concern is sustainable staffing levels and possible lay off of staff when the school board’s surplus funds run out,” said Hedges. “It seems to me that re-opening NES without increased funding is problematic and the district will not be able sustain the staffing levels without new funding to cover the costs of running an autonomous NES school.”
Dishkin confirmed that the District will be bringing in the outer coast vice principal to be the principal of NES and have allocated increases in support staff and special education teaching. He said that the District will be watching spending closely to ensure it is within its budget for the opening.
“The additional staffing allocated to NES, including a principal and support staff will form part of our ongoing allocation of surplus with an eye to generating cost savings in non-essential services and supplies over the next five years to ensure financial stability,” Dishkin explained.
The District sent out a survey asking for parent feedback on the re-opening of NES and over a dozen parents were present at the meeting to ask questions and relay their concerns.
Many parents expressed their concern over keeping the younger grades separate from the older students currently at SAMS. Staffing, supervision, transportation and curriculum development were also heavily discussed.
“We will continue the conversation with parents and the public through our monthly Board meetings and to communicate directly with families through the Bella Coola Elementary Parent Advisory Council,” said Dishkin.
Hedges urged a “cautionary” approach to the move, saying the increased demand for teachers across the province is having an effect here, and attracting and retaining teachers to rural areas is harder and harder.
“The CCTA would like to reiterate the need for the District to proceed slowly and cautiously and cost out the transition,” said Hedges. “The scenario I see for rural ares like ours is there will be an influx of uncertified Letter of Permission teachers or unfilled positions. The government will need to supply rural districts with increased funding to address the recruitment and retention issues to attract staff and retain them.”