By Ron Giofu
The Greater Essex County District School Board has deferred making a decision on the annual accommodation and capital planning report until Dec. 9 with that report recommending accommodation reviews for two local high schools.
Both General Amherst High School and Western Secondary School would face accommodation reviews should the board adopt the recommendations from its administration. Both schools are under capacity with a report presented by superintendent Todd Awender at the board’s meeting last Tuesday night suggesting that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Awender said in his report that there are nearly 600 empty spaces in the General Amherst “family of school,” which includes feeder schools Amherstburg Public, Anderdon Public and Malden Central Public School. He indicated that “grade restructuring, consolidation of schools or boundary changes may be potential solutions.”
The report also stated that renewal needs for General Amherst will be over $30 million within five years and predicted there will be a decline in enrolment at General Amherst over the next ten years to where “the school’s utilization rate will hover around 50 per cent.”
General Amherst is at 59 per cent capacity with enrolment dropping from 856 in 2010 to 678.5 this year.
Awender stated census statistics show that Amherstburg has seen a 12.1 per cent drop in residents ages 0-14 and a 1.7 per cent drop in residents ages 15-64, with a 22.6 per cent increase in citizens ages 65-and-over.
Amherstburg Public School’s student population is projected to decrease over the next decade with utilization rates to drop to less than 75 per cent over that period. Within five years, renewal needs will be over $7.3 million. Anderdon Public School “continues to operate at a high utilization rate,” the report states. Enrolment is expected to stabilize over the next decade but renewal needs will be over $5.8 million. Anderdon experienced a “substantial” increase in enrolment due to the closure of St. Theresa School in 2012, with Malden Central Public School also seeing an increase in enrolment that summer as well.
However, the accommodation report states that Malden Central’s enrolment has “declined significantly over the last two years” with full-day kindergarten alleviating some of the capacity pressure with the approval of capital investment. “A significant decrease in enrolment over the next ten years is projected,” the report indicates, adding there will be $3.5 million in renewal needs in the next five years.
“With a small student population and the surrounding schools having significant space not utilized, the exploration of possible school consolidation is warranted,” the report states.
Amherstburg Public School is at 82 per cent capacity with Anderdon being at 106 per cent capacity in its building and at 94 per cent when the on-site portables are incorporated and Malden Central is at 91 per cent enrolment.
“It appears that this family of schools is holding its own,” the report states. “However, within five years renewal needs will exceed $46.6 million. With the projected significant renewal needs and the future projected empty spaces, evaluation of this family of schools will be necessary in the near future.”
Western Secondary is at roughly 50 per cent capacity. It is the Greater Essex County District School Board’s only vocational school since Century closed as a vocational school in June with those students having the option of attending the new Westview Freedom Academy and accessing its adaptive basic programs or attending their neighbourhood school where “locally developed courses are being offered.”
The accommodation report noted Century had a declining pattern of enrolment projected with Western demonstrating a similar pattern. Western’s enrolment rates are projected to “hover around 50 per cent” over the next decade. Specialized programs similar to what Western offers are being offered at other high schools, the report suggested enrolment “may experience a significant decline as the appropriate courses are being offered in the student’s neighbourhood school.”
Aging infrastructure, along with enrolment challenges, are issues board-wide with Awender noting that while strides have been made in terms of the number of older buildings the board has, more issues remain.
“Our board is currently comprised of 76 buildings, 71 of which are schools,” he told the board last Tuesday night.
The board is currently spending in the neighbourhood of $5.7 million on empty spaces, he added. That includes over 6,000 empty spaces in permanent structures, not including portables and portapaks. Declining enrolment also impacts funding, Awender noted, as the Ministry of Education reduced the maximum top-up funding to 95 per cent and introduced a two-tiered system where schools at, or below, a 65 per cent utilization rate only receive a ten per cent top-up in funding instead of 15 per cent. That funding level means the GECDSB can only address urgent needs and is not adequate enough to address the board’s total renewal needs.
“The empty spaces are only going to hurt us moreso,” he stated.
Awender said the board has reduced its inventory of buildings older than 50-years-old by 26 per cent since 2006 but of the remaining buildings, ten per cent of them are over 90 years old and over 51 per cent are over 50 years old making the Greater Essex County District School Board’s infrastructure inventories one of the oldest in the province.
Other high schools that would be subject to accommodation reviews, should the recommendation be approved in its entirety, would be Harrow District High School and Harrow Public School. Some trustees balked at including Harrow in another accommodation study since that community went through one less than five years ago.
Amherstburg/LaSalle trustee Helga Bailey encouraged board members to come up with “creative solutions” to the problem. “I think we have a genuine opportunity to turn challenges into innovative solutions,” she said. Bailey, who was in her final meeting as a trustee, was also one of the board members wanting to hold off on making a final decision. She said her successor, Ron LeClair, should be allowed to be part of the process.
“He needs to be part of the process from the beginning,” said Bailey. “I think it’s important he have the opportunity right from the start.”
Dave Taves, the trustee representing Leamington and Pelee Island, said the board has always supported communities keeping their local high schools “and I don’t see that changing.”
Shelley Harding-Smith, an outgoing trustee from Windsor, said she would prefer to see “community outreach before we start meddling with boundaries.”