YK1 schools town hall meeting: what was said, what happens next

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Yellowknife, NWT – Parents gathered at Yellowknife’s Range Lake North School to hear the potential fate of their children’s schools on Thursday evening.

Based on the recommendations of a report completed in June, the YK1 school board presented four options for the future:

  1. Keeping its five elementary schools as per the status quo;
  2. Keeping five schools, but transferring Range Lake’s grades 6-8 to William McDonald school among other configuration changes;
  3. Four schools, all with PK-8 grade configuration, closing JH Sissons; and
  4. Running Mildred Hall as a dual track school (by closing JH Sissons and moving French Immersion students to Mildred Hall).

More than 150 parents, staff and community representatives heard superintendent Metro Huculak run through the pros and cons associated with each of the options, before providing feedback of their own in smaller ‘breakout’ groups.

View the full YK1 presentation on the four options here (opens a PDF file).

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A report presented in June by the board’s facilities committee recommended a four-school approach be taken, but parents at Thursday’s meeting appeared strongly in favour of maintaining the five-school status quo.

A final decision on the schools’ future will be taken at a school board meeting – open to the public – on December 9.

“We really value the input you have provided,” said YK1 school board chair John Stephenson.

John Stephenson
YK1 school board chair John Stephenson addresses Thursday’s meeting.

“Our primary intention here tonight was to hear what parents had to say. We came here to listen.

“We’ll be taking your input and having further discussions with the board as to where we want to take this.”

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Is the government involved?

At times there was confusion regarding the role the territorial government now played in deciding the schools’ future.

This review of YK1’s schools was, initially, a response to pressure from the government to consider handing a school to the city’s francophone school board. However, the francophone board had long been clear that it would not accept a school from YK1, and YK1 also maintained the government had no power to compel it to act.

Furthermore, earlier on Thursday, the GNWT issued a press release stating deadlines had long passed. The government confirmed it was no longer “asking YK1 to give up a school and it will be their decision alone on how to manage the schools they own”.

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Yet many parents continued to express concerns about the government’s involvement – and frame the options in terms of how the government might react – throughout the evening’s discussion.

“At no point were we ever told we had to give up a school,” said Stephenson, trying to dispel that notion.

“We’ve always made it clear that this was a discussion about options – about what is best for YK1.

“The catalyst for this process was a request from the government. At the beginning of this process, we were told either party could say no – we could say no, the francophone board could say no.

“All this work we’re doing here? I want you to stay focused on what is best for YK1.”

Why close a school?

YK1 feedback boards
Feedback recorded on boards during the YK1 town hall meeting.

Not all of those at the meeting favoured the status quo. Some parents pointed out that with JH Sissons in dire need of renovation and – with “slim to nil” current chance of receiving money for that renovation, by Huculak’s own admission – maintaining the same system appeared dangerous.

But others argued that closing JH Sissons in the hope of pushing up utilization in other schools – and hence forcing the government to consider investing in a new school – was unrealistic given the government’s lack of cash to invest.

“One of the choices we make, if we maintain all five of our schools, is we have lower utilization in two schools in particular,” said Stephenson.

“We currently have space in our schools to grow. If we close one, we’re at 80% utilization and then we would be in a position to have that conversation with the government that we need more space.

“If we were to discuss closing one of our schools, we would have to assess what the financial benefit would be.

“I am of a belief that we would be able to negotiate some one-time financial benefit to closing a school and transferring it to the government. What they did with it would be their concern, and their business.

“If – and it is a big if – we decided to close a school, it would give us the mandate to ask the government [for something] in return for that school.

“If we don’t like the answer, we wouldn’t give up the school.”

Pros and cons (from YK1’s presentation to parents)

Status quo

Pros: No disruption to any school or students; retain five facilities for district programs; room for enrolment to expand.

Cons: RLN reaching capacity and enrolment pressures need to be addressed; may not move up on the Capital Plan for JHS renovations due to low utilization; opportunities to access money for renovations to other schools may be minimal.

Five schools – JHS PK-5 FI, MHS PK-8, RLN PK-5, NJM PK-5, WMS 6-8

Pros: Increases WMS utilization to 56% from 30%, consolidates programming, no potential loss of NJM students, relieves enrolment pressure at RLN, consolidation of intensive and post-intensive French program (at WMS).

Cons: RLN utilization decreases to 54%; potential loss of grades 6-8 students and siblings; MHS remains under-utilized.

Four schools – JHS closed, others all PK-8, FI at WMS

Pros: Maintains a French immersion school; consolidates programs which allows re-profiling teacher allocations; approx $450,000 after-tax savings; other minor cost savings.

Cons: Loss of facility; loss of middle school; requires some renovation at NJM and minor renovations at WMS; RLN enrolment pressures are not addressed.

Four schools – JHS closed, MHS PK-5 (dual track), RLN PK-5, NJM PK-5, WMS 6-8

Pros: Middle school maintained; WMS utilization increases to 78%; greater efficiency with middle school programs; makes increased use of WMS space; utilization reaching 80%, which puts YK1 in position to lobby for extra space.

Cons: Loss of facility; doesn’t address RLN enrolment pressures; extra space needed in three years; current MHS students may leave district; lose 100% French immersion environment.

Four schools – JHS closed, MHS PK-8, RLN or NJM PK-5 FI, WMS 6-8

This fifth option was the original recommendation contained in the June report.

Pros: Parent needs for French Immersion and a middle school met; annual savings of $374,000; possible $2.17m sale of land; $450,000 total after-tax savings; middle school parents are happy; no disruption to MHS students; utilization up to 80%; consolidation of middle school programs; makes increased use of WMS space; allows for potential enrolment growth.

Cons: Possible loss of students as 6-8s move to WMS from RLN; loss of facility; uprooting 243 students at JHS, as well as uprooting RLN or NJM students; need to reconfigure bus lines; utilization puts YK1 in a position to lobby for extra space, but probably no government money for that extra space.

What they said

YK1 town hall meeting
Discussion during Thursday night’s town hall meeting.

John Stephenson, YK1 school board chair, told Moose FM:

“People like the way things are in their schools. They’ve chosen the school that they have because of the way it is – that represents status quo. It’s no surprise to me that a large number of parents were making sounds in favour of the status quo.

“We also heard parents that spoke up and said, ‘You have to realize the status quo does cost us money in some of the programming benefits we might realize if we had one less school to look after.’

“We need to make a long-term decision for YK1. We need to take a five-to-ten year perspective as to what is best for YK1 students today and in the long term.

“We’ve heard from the government that they’re open to hearing from us regarding what it is we would like to do, and what we would like to receive in return.”

Daryl Dolynny, Range Lake MLA, told Moose FM:

“I stand by every word I said [at the Legislative Assembly, despite the territorial government’s statement that it is no longer involved in YK1’s decision-making process]. YK1 is being put in a very precarious situation to come up with a solution to help the Department of Education deal with a problem. A solution still hasn’t been presented. I believe whatever comes out of this discussion tonight will have a huge impact on resolving the legal issue we’ve got.

“It’s painfully obvious and I’ve heard this from many parents – most parents want status quo and they don’t want to see any changes. But there are options to look at and I appreciate where YK1 is going, engaging all the parents to look at all the options. I’m very happy with the status quo but let’s let process prevail and see what happens.

“There are pros and cons, as they presented. The bottom line is – if we are truly looking at a 2,000-person growth in the Northwest Territories, and we put YK1 back into a four-school model – within a very short period of time, with the utilization numbers, we’re going to be right back where we started where we’ll need another school. So what are we solving?”

Gabriela Eggenhofer, deputy education minister, told Moose FM:

“The GNWT is not asking YK1 to decommission any of its schools. The decision as to whether to decommission any of its schools rests entirely with the trustees of YK1. We are really just bystanders to see how this will unfold.

“If indeed they make the decision to decommission a school, I think YK1’s intention is to approach the government and say, ‘OK, now we want to get rid of our school. What does that mean in terms of any dealings with the territorial government?’

“But the decisions they take will not influence the appeal that is currently before the Court of Appeal respecting the expansion we were ordered to undertake for Ecole Allain St-Cyr. Yes, we initiated the conversation – but because of the timing, it’s not going to influence the court case any longer.

“We will have to see what kind of proposal YK1 brings to the attention of the government, and that is certainly a decision that would have to be taken by Executive Council.”

Regarding Range Lake MLA’Daryl Dolynny’s comments above:

“I would find it difficult to imagine how a decision that would be rendered by YK1 in December could still influence the court case heard on March 24. I can’t see how it would influence the legal proceedings currently under way.”

Cheryl McKay, parent of two students at NJ Macpherson School, told Moose FM:

“I’m for status quo at this time. There are too many unknowns out there and to give up a facility seems like a drastic option, without the schools knowing about future funding or parents even having lobbied the government to increase its capital budget for the schools.

“NJ is our neighbourhood school. We chose it because of its excellent teaching staff and proximity staff. That feels threatened by some of the options here.”

CJCD Moose FM News

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