Local schools could be on chopping block

·6 min read

Declining school enrollment could lead to difficult decisions, including closing a school in Ridgetown.

Despite a recent increase in student enrollment, the local public school board is reporting an ongoing downward trend.

The Lambton Kent District School Board said for the 2021-2022 school year, elementary enrollment has increased by 319 students over the previous year. In secondary schools, enrollment has increased by 234 students compared to last year. Total enrollment for the school year is currently 21,572 students.

“The increase was the result of students returning from the homeschooling program, students participating in the remote learning program, and continued migration to the area,” read a report presented to trustees at the board meeting held last week.

LKDSB Education Director John Howitt said that although there was a positive increase in enrollment this school year, the school board is still facing overall declining enrollment.

He said the school board enrollment remains on a downward trend, with a 7.08 percent decline in the overall student population compared to a decade earlier.

The board said enrollment is projected to continue to decline by another 308 students by 2032.

Howitt added that in 2023, a high of 14,648 elementary students is projected, but in 2032, the elementary enrolment projection is 14,438, a decline of 210 students over the next 10 years.

Secondary enrolment is projected to fluctuate over the next ten years due to larger elementary classes moving to secondary. In 2032, an estimated headcount of 7,227 is projected, resulting in a decrease of 98 students since the 2023 projection of 7,325 total students.

“We understand that we must make responsible decisions based on historical and current enrollment projections to ensure that we are maximizing student programming and funding allocations to best support student achievement and well-being,” said Board Chair Randy Campbell.

The school board is currently estimating that elementary schools will be at 76 percent capacity in September 2022, while capacity for secondary schools will be at 66 percent.

“We are hopeful this trend continues, but we understand that we must make responsible decisions based on historical and current enrollment projections to ensure that we are maximizing student programming and funding allocations to best support student achievement and well-being,” said Campbell.

Trustees also heard that the board’s current annual funding is not sufficient to cover the current capital needs and is resulting in a sizable funding gap. The gap is projected to increase each year during the next 10 years unless additional funding is available.

“We are very hopeful and vocal with the Ministry of Education that the moratorium is lifted so that the community can come together and discuss what secondary schools in the public school system for the Lambton Kent District School Board look like going forward,” said Howitt.

Due to the ongoing moratorium on school consolidations, the LKDSB is not currently permitted to move forward with its phased approach to addressing empty student spaces in its schools. The administration would consider some additional considerations and/or options to present to trustees when the moratorium is lifted.

Currently, there are 15 public elementary schools and five public secondary schools that are under 60 percent capacity.

Senior administration presented the 2022 Capital Plan to Trustees at the Board Meeting on April 26. The Capital Plan provides an update to community partners on the status ofthe Lambton Kent District School Board’s school conditions and demographics.

Howitt said the report highlights that John McGregor, Tilbury District high School, Blenheim District High School and Ridgetown District High School are four of the top five highest costs for repairs necessary on those buildings and also are some of the highest vacancy rates within the system.

RDHS has a capacity of 495 students. In September of 2021, there were 111 students, bringing the percentage capacity down to 22 percent. Meanwhile, Nahii Ridge has a capacity of 375 students and, in September of 2021, had 260 students, bringing the percentage capacity to 69 percent.

The LKDSB receives grant funding on an annual basis to carry out capital repair and maintenance programs on school facilities. Capital projects are prioritized based on school needs and conditions. The capital needs and condition of the schools are used to calculate the Facility Condition Index (FCI). The FCI is a common facilities management benchmark that compares the relative condition of a group of facilities. The FCI compares the total cost of required capital work in LKDSB schools against the replacement value of those same schools. A facility with a high FCI would generally require a larger capital investment than a similar-sized facility that has a lower FCI. High FCI scores are generally found in older buildings. The following information summarizes FCI data for LKDSB schools for a 5 Year and a 10 Year FCI calculation.

RDHS, which has a facility replacement value of $17,327,619, has the third-highest FCI at 72.77 percent. The 10 Year Renewal Data and Year FCI Calculation as of March 3, 2021, calculates Ridgetown’s local high school to have an FCI of 104.36 percent. Nahii Ridge has a facility replacement value of $8,501,087 and an FCI of 43.35 percent.

Back in November, senior administration with the LKDSB presented a report to trustees during a board meeting. The report outlined current and future enrollment demographics and financial considerations.

According to the report, enrollment is projected to decline by an additional 221 students by 2031. The drop in the number of students will ultimately mean the LKDSB will receive less funding from the provincial government.

“The Pupil Accommodation Report continues to emphasize the need to address ongoing challenges facing the LKDSB, including enrollment decline and related funding challenges, as well as aging facilities, while prioritizing student achievement and well-being,” said Howitt.

The report suggests consolidating students and closing several schools in Blenheim, Ridgetown, Tilbury, Dresden and the Chatham area.

The first scenario would involve building a new smaller school for Kindergarten to Grade 12 on either the Blenheim District High School site or Harwich Raleigh Public School. As a result, Harwich Raleigh Public School, W.J. Baird Public School, Ridgetown District High School, and Blenheim District High School would close, and students would be relocated.

A second scenario suggests closing Blenheim District High School, Ridgetown District High School, John McGregor Secondary School and Tilbury District High School and relocating students to a newly constructed Grade 9 to Grade 12 secondary school at a yet to be determined location.

The second scenario also suggests relocating Ridgetown District High School students in Grade 7 and 8 to Naahii Ridge Public School and closing W.J. Baird Public School to relocate students to Harwich Raleigh Public School in Blenheim.

While the school board said it would need to address its resource and funding challenges, the Ministry of Education currently has a moratorium on school closures and consolidations in place. As a result, the school board will not be able to move forward with the proposed scenarios until the moratorium is lifted.

Since 1998, the LKDSB has closed 14 elementary schools and three secondary schools.

Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News

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