School board grudgingly agrees to put $25 million toward new Burke Mountain school; enrollment expected to dip this fall

School District #43 has five years to come up with $25 million to help pay for the forthcoming Burke Mountain Secondary/Middle School following a unanimous vote by the school board Tuesday evening.

“It’s not an easy decision,” said board chair Michael Thomas. “But at the same time, it is.”

While Thomas said he’d rather spend the money on staffing to support the most vulnerable students, he emphasized the community needs a school on Burke Mountain and, without it, the district will likely be on the hook for 40 portables over the next seven years. The cost of those portables would likely be $14 million, not factoring for inflation, according to the board’s secretary treasurer.

The district is planning to help foot the bill for the school with $10 million that was intended to pay for a 10-classroom addition at Scott Creek Middle School. The Ministry of Education has been advised that they would need to fund 100 percent of the Scott Creek Middle School expansion, “as we have no more funding for that,” noted school board chief financial officer Mohammed Azim.

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Punishment

Thomas said he’d emphasized the district’s budget constraints during discussions with the Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside.

“I did stress that we felt like we were being punished for getting our financial house in order,” Thomas said. “While she sympathized and understood, my understanding is the decision was made by treasury board and out of her control.”

The projected cost of the Burke Mountain school is now $145 million, an increase of approximately $30 million from two years earlier, Azim told the board.

However, failing to move ahead could jeopardize the entire project, he added.

“Additional costs . . . will far exceed the $25 million contribution,” Azim advised.

Azim recommended the board approve the expenditure: ““based on no other options I see.”

The province is expected to confirm the arrangement in April or May, according to Azim.

Not a portable solution

School trustees were united in their ambivalence about the project, with trustee Kerri Palmer Isaak explaining it’s inevitable the district will have to dip into its operating budget.

“I sure as heck would rather [the money] not go into portables,” she said.

However, Isaak raised an alarm about long-term ramifications.

“I’m very concerned that this is precedent setting on the part of the province in terms of funding schools,” she said.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” trustee Craig Woods said. “I think the best way forward is to work proactively and collaboratively with provincial government.”

A good working relationship should help set up future projects, Woods explained.

Tim-beerrr

Asked whether the new school would be mass timber, Azim outlined multiple challenges, suggesting the planned 2026 opening could be delayed.

“Building mass timber on top of a mountain in a city that typically doesn’t build mass timbers . . . there’s a bit of a challenge when it comes to that,” Azim said.

‘Unfair’

Coun. Lisa Park questioned why the province required a $3 million contribution to help fund a new $102.7 West Kelowna school.

“It’s so unfair,” she said.

Kelowna operates in a “completely different capital planning universe,” according to Azim, noting several projects have been prioritized in District #43.

Enrollment expected to drop in 2022/23 school year

All told, there may be about 247 fewer students in School District #43 classrooms this fall, according to a presentation from assistant superintendent Gerald Shong.

Shong’s calculations are based on several factors including the number of graduating students, K-12 enrolment, and the number of students being homeschooled or entering online learning programs.

B.C.’s Ministry of Education forecast a smaller drop in enrolment, predicting about 147 fewer students in School District #43 this fall.

Given that the number of students provides the foundation for the school district’s annual budget, the district is planning to proceed based on the ministry’s figures, according to Shong.

“To ensure that we receive full funding . . . we are going to submit the number that the ministry did,” he said during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Learning from home

Enrolment has been affected by the students in Apex, an online learning program in which students meet with teachers one-on-one for about 1 hour every two weeks.

Typically, there are about 15 district students being homeschooled each year. Last year there were 60 district students being homeschooled, down from 85 the previous school year.

“We’re hoping they return to school as things improve [with the pandemic],” Shong said.

In the long-term, enrolment should increase as the northeast part of the school district is developed and as more families move into the developments along the SkyTrain line, according to Shong.

Fewer students could mean less funding and more challenges, noted school board chair Michael Thomas.

“I’m a little nervous because your numbers are always so accurate,” Thomas told Shong. “For once . . . I hope you’re off.”

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