Gabriola PAC submits petition opposing Cedar move, calls for innovative solutions

The Gabriola Parent Advisory Council submitted a petition with over 1,000 signatures opposing students move to Cedar Secondary during a presentation to Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ board of trustees.

Increased commute times and access to extracurriculars, services and support networks were some of the challenges a move to Cedar would pose to students and families, Julie Sperber, representing the Gabriola PAC, said in a presentation to the board on Feb. 22. “It’s somewhat perplexing that the district assumed Gabriola was a bus in, bus out community,” Sperber said.

In its report that outlines five possible scenarios to address capacity at Nanaimo District Secondary School, which is nearly 100 students over official capacity with six portables already on campus, NLPS identified Gabriola students as commuting via school bus to the ferry terminal in mornings and afternoons. During the consultation period, parents have stressed that many students use alternative transportation, including walking, to accommodate appointments, part-time jobs and other activities.

Sperber and a separate delegation from the NDSS Islanders lacrosse academy voiced opposition to any scenario that would move students currently attending or in catchment of NDSS. NLPS’s second scenario suggests moving the four sports academies to John Barsby Secondary. The field lacrosse academy has 44 students, 16 of which are in NDSS catchment.

“Unfortunately, without prior consultation, it is unknown if all athletes would relocate to Barsby if the lacrosse academy was moved,” the Islanders’ presentation says.

Sperber, former executive director of the Gabriola Chamber of Commerce and current president of the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance, noted the long-term ramifications to the community at-large should Gabriola students move to Cedar, a place most Gabriolans have no connection to, she said. It could disrupt attracting and retaining young families from moving to Gabriola, affecting the labour force and availability of local services.

“I’m really asking the district to look at the networks and the stakeholders in the district that you can work with to find innovative solutions that don’t include displacing any of the student body at NDSS,” Sperber said. The PAC would support adding capacity through infrastructure. “Lean on the communities…ask us what we think.”

An ongoing frustration among parents from Gabriola and other communities, the length of the consultation process. With only a month to gather information and ask questions, “conversations have felt pressured and hurried and rushed”, Sperber said in response to a trustee question about interest among Gabriolans to incorporate grades 8 and 9 into Gabriola Elementary. “We haven’t had the opportunity to have those robust discussions.”

In response to a parent’s question at the Feb. 21 virtual information session about who the district has engaged thus far, such as students and sports academy coaches, staff said they had not been, but said the current NDSS consultation is “part of a process” that began with the district-wide long-range facilities plan (LRFP) consultation in 2020-21. The NDSS consultation report was drafted by the LRFP committee and delivered to the board in late January.

When asked by the Sounder whether the NLPS board would extend the consultation period, trustee and chair Greg Keller said the board would be “looking to staff for a recommendation” once the final report on the consultation is received at the end of March or early April. Before then the business committee will receive an update that will “outline the next steps and provide clarity to the community on the process” and “respond to questions that have arisen from the process so far” at its March 8 meeting.

Capacity challenges at NDSS have been growing for several years. When the district closed Woodlands Secondary, the three sports academies there – beach volleyball, hockey and soccer – moved to NDSS, which at the time had a population of 1,063. A 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada supporting B.C. teachers’ collective bargaining rights to negotiate class size and composition had an impact as well, NLPS’ Superintendent Scott Saywell said at the virtual information session. “We filled up our schools quite quickly in 2017,” as additional teachers and classrooms were added.

Asked whether the school district should have begun an NDSS consultation process sooner given the district knew there was a problem for several years, Keller said last year NLPS was focused on consultation around redrawing north Nanaimo catchments as well as Ladysmith.

There are “only so many resources the district has,” Keller said. During the NDSS consultation, “we’ve heard very clearly what the thoughts are from the community of Gabriola. The board has yet to officially receive that input yet…. We want to make sure that before we make any decisions we explore all options and provide adequate time for the community to provide input. “We would be looking for staff to recommend if further consultation should be considered on different aspects of the options that were identified.”

Rachelle Stein-Wotten, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder