Chinook Board votes to close Ashley Park School at end of June 2015
The Chinook School Division Board of Education voted by an 8-2 margin to close Ashley Park School at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
The closure, approved during the Board's Jan. 13 meeting, will also pave the way for O.M. Irwin School and Central School to transition into K to 8 schools. O.M. Irwin School will become a Kindergarten to Grade 8 school beginning at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. Central School will have a more gradual transition to adding the upper grades to their current elementary school configuration, adding Grade 6 students in 2014-2015, Grade 7 classes in 2015-2016, and compling the move by adding Grade 8 classes in 2016-2017.
Chinook Board chairperson Randy Beler admitted school closure is a difficult topic, but their decision was reached after numerous board discussions and consultations with the community.
"School closure always does have an impact. I mean there's always somebody that's going to be effected in a way that they maybe don't want to be effected. The other side of that is we've looked at all the information, we've looked at the rationale behind it. We've looked at everything we've could. We've talked to numerous people. We've had all these consultations. And at the end of the day the board made the decision that this was the best way to go," Beler said during a post vote interview. "This was also a difficult decision for board members. We don't take these things likely. There was a lot of discussion put into this. We had a retreat last November, two days, and a whole day was dedicated to this topic alone."
With the opening of the new K to 8 Centennial School for the start of the 2014-2015 school year, with an approximate student population of 500, Chinook completed a consultation with the community via a survey and a trio of community meeting to receive input regarding the future of Swift Current's three core schools (Central School, O.M. Irwin, and Ashley Park). Once Centennial opens, the projected total enrolment of the three core schools is expected to be 685 students, while the total functional capacity of the three schools is 1,200 students. Ashley Park currently has an enrolment of 260 students, with a functional capacity of 264. Central School has 304 students with a functional capacity of 336. O.M. Irwin school has a current enrolment of 279 students, with a functional capacity estimated at 600 students.
The most persuasive survey result, answered by 208 individuals, showed strong support for the Board's option of consolidating into fewer school facilities to ensure that funds are directed to needed maintenance and upgrades for the remaining schools. A total of 33.33 per cent of respondents strongly agreed with the option, another 43.43 per cent agreed with the idea of consolidation. Only 9.09 per cent disagreed and 13.64 per cent of respondents strongly disagreed with consolidation.
The board's decision also completes a trio of decisions which have reshaped the direction of Swift Current's elementary and middle schools.
"This is a big decision. We've remodelled the system in the City quite a bit. The new school was the first step. Fairview was the second step. Adjusting the core schools is now the third step. And you can't do that all in one year. It's just too much to bite off. So we did it in sort of three phases," Beler admitted.
"I'm very comfortable with it. The board has made a clear decision that they want to go ahead with this process. When you look at the centre of the City, we have probably 1,100 student seats and less than 700 students. So we would have three buildings that would probably not be utilized to their maximum capacity. This decision should rectify that."
Chinook School Division Director of Education Liam Choo Foo highlighted that the school closure process within the city is not the same as what the board had to follow when closing rural schools.
"The process that has to be followed in terms of the closure of a city school is very different for what is legislated for the closure of a rural school," Choo Foo explained. "Within a city school, the regulations are far more relaxed. It's really the intention of the board. And so it's not as prescriptive in legislation as to what has to be done. It still has to follow regular, due process types of activities."
He noted that this closure was also not a decision based purely on financial savings.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it was just finances. I think the board had to look an awful lot, and the survey spoke quite loudly about the importance of ensuring that we had quality programming and equalized educational opportunities for kids throughout the City, and felt that the operation of two schools in the core was the best way to go about doing that for all of the students in Swift Current."
The Board looked closely at the core student population once Centennial School opened, with projections estimating 170 students would remain at O.M. Irwin if the status quo was maintained. Choo Foo pointed out there are 265 students at Ashley Park, and the capacity of Irwin School is 600 students, so they are easily able to absorb the projected enrolment.
Chinook will now undergo the transition from two middle year schools and three elementary schools into a trio of K to 8 facilities.
"We've always had a great priority around providing excellent middle years education. And so we are going to be doing everything that we can to ensure that we have a 'school within a school' concept. So that middle year kids are going to be receiving instruction that's appropriate to their age level. We're going to have them grouped in similar areas of the school. We're going to have different sorts of protocols and procedure for those kids so that the Kindergarten and Grade ones aren't necessarily dictating what the procedures for the older kids are going to be," Choo Foo said.
Their first set of transitions will occur at the start of the upcoming school year when Centennial School opens.
"On budget on time for Centennial School," Choo Foo said while knocking on wood. "And that's probably the cornerstone because that's number one. Number two then becomes the decommissioning of Oman School. Number three would be the completion of the renovation at Fairview, that was always intended to be complete for Christmas of next year. So we are going to have some transition for the Oman students who are not able to yet fit at Fairview, and so we're doing some work around that to ensure that there's temporary classroom space available for those kids in that kind of awkward period."
Monday's board decision was not unanimous, as trustees Shane Andrus and Elaine Anderson both voiced strong opposition to the closure. They both suggested holding off on the closure vote.
"I'm very uncomfortable with the decision to close Ashley Park School," Anderson said during debate on the motion. "I know from personal experience that closing a school has serious implications, and it is a decision that can not be taken lightly. I believe we must have compelling reasons to close any school, and from my perspective the reasons that are outlined in this resolution are not compelling reasons."
Anderson suggested a two year delay in the closure vote, noting the board should look at the reality of the enrolment trends and issues only following the opening of Centennial School.
"Logistically, it's readily apparent that there are going to be significant logistical issues emanating from the transition into Centennial School. That is unavoidable." she said. "However, the upheaval that will ensure as a result of the changes we are proposing today will be substation, and that is avoidable and there's no good reason to invite it."
She also highlighted that the resolution calls for the closing based on of educational inefficiency and functional obsolescence of the school facility, but feels that was not a correct designation for the decision.
"In fact I've heard time and again that the school (Ashley Park) is a cherished part of the community and boasts a high standard of education. I don't think it's reasonable to close a school simply because it's in close proximity to another school which is projected to experience low enrolments the next couple of years. Why not wait and see what actually happens? There is no risk in waiting. There is no compelling reason to go ahead."
Shane Andrus also had a series of key reasons for opposing the motion.
Andrus voiced concerns over the logistical challenge of accommodating the closure and its disruption of the student environment. The also argued the change will create new attendance boundaries which would impact which schools students attend and change busing boundaries, also causing some upheaval.
"At the public consultations at Ashley Park, the parents at that time expressed a high level of satisfaction in their educational experience at Ashley Park, including the educational program but also the building itself."
He also argued with the cost benefit analysis and was not convinced there really is a cost benefit that would help the Division, or the students.
"I'd like to recommend to the board to take a year for sober second thought before we make any decisions to determine in the year to come where enrolments would actually come to be in the various schools. Right now we're just using our best educational guesses."
Chinook will be sharing their transition plan with parents, staff and the community at a public meeting on Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. at Irwin School. In addition, attendance areas will be adjusted for Irwin and Central Schools over the upcoming two school years. Families should contact their school for details, and a new attendance area map will soon be available on the Chinook School Division website.
In addition to the changes impacting city students, effective the fall of 2015, O.M. Irwin will be designated as the inlet school for eligible Kindergarten to Grade 8 rural students being bused to Swift Current. The division highlighted that modifications will be made to the SCCHS and Irwin School sites to enhance safe and efficient loading and unloading of school buses.