Shared space options provide hope of saving declining rural schools

M’CHIGEENG—Blending classrooms, seniors complexes, township administration offices and OPP detachments might be what is in store for rural schools across Ontario due to steadily decreasing student enrolment.

Norm Blaseg, Director of Education, Dennis Bazinet Superintendent of Business and Heather Thirkill of Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) were at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) this past Monday for an opportunity to provide an update to local leaders, businesses and interested parties about the long term capital data and integrating community planning and facilities partnerships.

In their long-term capital data report, elementary school enrolment trends have shown a decline from 10,029 students in 2006, to 8,459 in 2015. The report noted a small increase of 91 students in 2016.

“Clearly, we see the decline over that period of time, hopefully this is the tail end of that decline and we see stabilization over even a small increase in the future,” said Mr. Bazinet.

In terms of overall enrolment trends over the last 10 years, student enrolment has declined in the region from 16,497 to 13,372 students. Overall enrolment over the next five years is projected to decline further to an estimated 12,273 students.

“That’s where we are challenged at the moment in terms of having a lot of excess capacity in our schools. When we translate this into excess pupil spaces in the school it gives you a sense when you think of classrooms available,” said Mr. Bazinet. “We have a  lot of space relative to our population.”

Capacity in elementary schools is 23 students per class. Central Manitoulin Public School (Mindemoya) can support 286 students, but they only have an estimated 188 enrolled. A shortage of 98 students could mean a lot of empty classrooms.”

Assiginack Public School (Manitowaning) was the only school (on Manitoulin) to post over capacity numbers. “You’ll notice Assiginack is over 100 percent, but I’ll tell you how quickly this can change,” Mr. Blaseg said. “Twenty years ago we averaged 30-35 students per classroom. They’ve since dropped capacity to 23, but the size of the school hasn’t changed. So when you hear schools are facing capacity issues, it’s triggered by the mandated class sizes the Ministry of Education sets forth.”

With a total of 696 excess pupil spaces on Manitoulin Island, sharing space with community partners may be a positive alternative.

“In terms of C.C. McLean (Gore Bay), we have two partnerships; a daycare and a seniors group moving in over the course of the summer,” Mr. Bazinet said. “The ministry has allocated some funds for minor renovations to allow partners. It gives us the ability to isolate sections of the school, add exterior doors, additional fencing and separate parking. It will also allow our security system to be updated and  provide keycard access for the school.”

“Funding for this type of thing is a very positive change; it’s always been a barrier when talking about partnerships. Sometimes we think we can make it work, but it takes some money to make minor reconfigurations to the schools,” said Mr. Bazinet.

Capitalizing on free space in the school is in the nature of the staff and the school itself; they will find something to utilize the space, with good intentions, according to Mr. Blaseg.

“Ask any principal and they will tell you they have no space in their school,” he smiled. “But with Manitoulin Secondary School at 60 percent capacity, for example, the reality is the ministry doesn’t want to fund those empty spaces, so they are really challenging us to find alternatives, like partnering with communities or OPP to use the space. We just have to be sure it’s a fit for both sides.”

Mr. Blaseg suggested school-friendly partnerships like government oriented agencies such as daycares or seniors’ centres and health services like doctors’ offices.

Staff Sergeant Kevin Webb, detachment commander of the Manitoulin/Espanola OPP, expressed interest in having a community liaison office or space for their officer who would be exclusive to the schools.

Billings Township Councillor Barb Erskine confirmed with the representatives that the school could stay open 12 months of the year to accommodate possible office spaces.

Leasing space within the school starts at a competitive rate of $11.22 per square foot per year, according to Mr. Bazinet. An average 750 square foot classroom would cost $8,415 per year. A few factors can affect cost, he said, but the ministry’s overall intent is to recover operating costs. He suggested wireless Internet access could also be shared between schools and their partners.

The Ministry of Education has, over the last two years, doubled capital funding for Rainbow Schools from approximately $5 million to $10 million, according to Mr. Bazinet.

“Our priorities are typically concentrated to the envelopes of the buildings; the roof, the windows, the doors. We look at our heating systems as well to try and offset operating costs,” Mr. Bazinet said.

“We are still waiting for the Ministry of Education to respond to our request for capital dollars to do some consolidations in Sudbury,” said Mr. Bazinet. “In June, once we hear from them it will dictate how we move forward. Everything should flow together as we create next year’s budget, plan with partners and look to the next five years.”

In August, Rainbow board will discuss their long-term and accommodation plan which includes the initial staff report on student accommodation at their board meeting in Sudbury.

Interested agencies or organizations who wish to partner with Rainbow Schools may contact the manager of Facilities and Maintenance at the Board office in Sudbury.