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Caroline Dumas teaches her Grade 2/3 St. Joseph students in a classroom at N.J. Macpherson school. Where Dumas and her students will end up next year can't be settled until a turf war between the two school boards is resolved. - Christine Grimard/NNSL photo

Education at what price?

Christine Grimard
Northern News Services
Wednesday, May 02, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - Charles Dent will make one more attempt this Thursday to convince parents that shutting down one of Yellowknife Education District No. 1's school is in the best interest of the students.

As both schools engage in what Dent classified a "turf war," Yellowknifer made some calculations on what costs could be saved and redirected back into the classroom.

See Editorial: Turf war a smokescreen

J.H. Sissons has been cited most often as the school likely to shut down. Although Dent has made no official suggestion, J.H. Sissons stands most vulnerable with a capacity rate sitting at 60.3 per cent for 2006/2007 and renovation plans ahead. J.H. Sissons students will have to be relocated in two years for those renovations regardless of whether Yk 1 chooses to shut it down this year.

Utility costs of the school alone sit at $151,723, plus a share of the $300,000 the school board sets aside district wide for grounds and building maintenance. There are also 4.3 administrative positions that Dent estimated cost above $200,000 combined. Include Dent's penalty of $200,000 for choosing to keep the school open, the board is losing out on over $400,000 annually that could be spent on programming.

Utilities and building costs, however, are mostly covered by ECE, meaning those funds won't necessarily be directed back into the classroom.

Dent has suggested leasing the school to YCS.

This year at a market rate determined by an insurance company, Yk 1 profited $109,279.86 for just seven months of rent from YCS for the 4,100 square feet of classroom and office space they are currently leasing at NJ Macpherson school. A lease for a full school over an entire year would certainly bring them more than that.

While Dent had previously taken a stand against charging YCS a lease, he said he would reconsider his position if it would bring the two parties together for discussions.

Dent confirmed that Yk 1 is losing over $400,000 annually to keep an under-utilized school open.

Terry Brookes, chairperson of Yk 1, said that while he recognizes closing a school could free up some dollars, the value of one school is worth more to him than how much it costs to keep it open.

"There is value seen by parents in the neighbourhood school concept," said Brookes. He added that parents value proximity and staff as much as programming. Brookes said the board will continue to oppose closing down a school.

Since Dent made the suggestion of handing over a school, the issue of where St. Joseph school students will end up next year has turned into what appears to be a battle between the two competing school boards.

The Catholic school board has been pushing the minister for a new school since the development of the Ten Year Education Facility Plan in 2005 with their enrollment approaching 100 per cent. Yk 1, with low capacity rates, was against building a new school.

"We were full to the rafters and with no solution," said Kern Von Hagen, superintendent of YCS, at a budget information session last Thursday. "Everyone was looked after but us."

With the burning of part of St. Joseph school last summer, YCS students were forced into classes leased from Yk 1.

While Von Hagen said they appreciate the space, renting scattered classrooms has been a logistical nightmare and not a permanent solution. In their budget, the Catholic school board is counting on getting an entire school for next year.

Catholic school board trustees' arguments for more space were not as practical as Von Hagen's. At a school board meeting in February, Chair Shannon Gullberg accused Dent of holding an agenda to "eradicate" the Catholic school board.

Dent continues to argue that his suggestion had little to do with favouring one school board over the other.

The Ten Year Education Facility Plan written in 2005 mentions that, "the imbalance between Yk 1 and YCS capacities must be addressed."

With many of Yk 1's schools sitting at 60 per cent capacity, Dent has argued that money saved from closing the school board could be put back into the classroom. Yellowknifer has just put that tag at over $400,000.

Reaction to Dent's suggestion was decidedly against closing a school.

Close to 400 parents showed up to a meeting in March with a clear message that they didn't want to see a school close down.

Yk 1 board members have echoed the sentiment that while they will continue leasing space to YCS, they are not prepared to close a school.

Dent will hold another information session April 24 at Northern United Place starting at 7 p.m.