The road ahead for the Lambton Kent District School Board involves consolidations, partnerships and a concerted effort to use funds more efficiently.
Gary Girardi, Superintendent of Education – Capital Planning and Accommodation, presented the board’s capital plan last week.
The report notes that there is an “unexpected increase” of one per cent in elementary school enrolment, attributed to families relocating from other boards and areas.
That reverses a long-term trend which has led to the closing of 14 elementary schools and three secondary schools since 1998.
For the 2016-17 school year, the LKDSB has experienced an unexpected increase in elementary enrolment. As of Sept. 14, 2016, there are 14,561 elementary-aged students registered in our schools, an increase of 132 students or 1% over the 2015-16 elementary average daily enrolment of 14,429.
The board is currently reporting 7,455 total students, 286 less students than were enrolled on October 31, 2015.
One of the issues facing the board is that despite closures, there are still nearly 8,000 empty seats in the board’s 54 elementary and 12 secondary schools.
The board is also facing capital costs over the next five years of more than $366 million dollars to meet provincial goals for buildings.
Replacement cost is slightly double that number at $764 million.
Girardi said cost of renovations, vacancy rate and distance to other schools all play a role in determining if a school should be closed.
“We have to determine the most efficient way to operate,” he said. “We need to be accountable in terms of where and how we spend tax dollars.”
The ministry of education is moving boards across the province toward greater occupancy percentages by eliminating “top up grants” it once supplied for boards with a system based on enrolment and distance to the nearest same-board school.
He said the board is examining schools with an enrolment of 60 per cent or less for potential community partnerships.
“If we can make use of a facility and share some of the cost with a partner such as a municipality, it makes sense,” he said. “Every case will be decided on its own merits but we’re certainly open to expanding partnerships.”
Currently 11 elementary and four secondary schools, including all Chatham-Kent secondary schools outside of Chatham fit in that category.
A further seven schools are in the 60 to 65 per cent range and could also be eligible for partnerships.
Girardi said the board has been impressed with results of integrating grades seven and eight into Wallaceburg District Secondary School.
“The process has gone smoothly, in part because the process was well thought out and our staff have done an excellent job,” he said.