Last year’s conversion of unused classrooms at Silverthorne Elementary into a dedicated childcare and early years preparation program helped balance a gap between the amount of space School District 54 was maintaining between its Houston schools compared to the district’s student population.
Years of enrolment decline in Houston saw the school district maintaining the same square footage at Twain Sullivan, Silverthorne and Houston Secondary despite a 47 per cent gap in enrolment from 1988 to today.
Along with renovations at Silverthorne for a childcare program and a Strongstart program, the building is going through a $2.1 million upgrade of its mechanical systems, including heating and ventilation.
All of the above was highlighted in a report on the condition of the district’s buildings in Houston and in Smithers.
It indicates continued work by the school district to adapt and renovate its interior spaces to better reflecting changing educational needs.
“School districts don’t downsize facilities too often unless proven to be surplus to District long term needs,” said School District 54 secretary-treasurer Dave Margerm in commenting on the district’s facilities.
“Much of Houston’s extra space has been repurposed for improved educational spaces: trades programs, greater learning commons (library and tech space), multipurpose and community space, more classroom space which allows for lower class sizes, extra learner support space for special education students, etc.,” he added.
“Silverthorne is realistically at capacity now with daycare integrated. Twain Sullivan is probably close with use of extra programming space.”
Margerm noted that Houston Secondary remains a little low versus its capacity but that it is better to have extra space available for learning rather than the other way around.
In the Smithers area, the school district has been active in disposing of properties considered surplus to its needs.
That’s included selling land in the Quick area, the former Quick Elementary, the former Lake Kathlyn school and its Chandler Park property.
A major addition came with the $32 million construction of the new Walnut Park school in Smithers, a project to be fully finished this spring.
The district does have continued challenges as its buildings get older, requiring work both on the outside and inside of the structures. Improved insulation and new windows are included on the district’s ‘to do’ list.
With the new Walnut Park factored in, the average age of the school district’s buildings is nearly 47 years.
Aside from the physical work itself, the district faces another challenge and that relates to the money it gets each year from the province to maintain and upgrade its facilities.
Historically the district receives about $700,000 a year for maintenance and upgrades but does not know the actual amount and it cannot carry over grant monies from one year to the next, circumstances that work against multi-year planning.
“Knowing grants years in advance would help form a planning process. This has generally not been the way of [education] ministry funding though given governments work on an annual budget themselves and can always add or revoke on an annual basis,” said Margerm.
New ministry policy now requires school districts to prepare multi-year plans for educational and capital spending and that assumes budgets based on enrolment, he continued.
There’s also an expectation school districts manage their surpluses to finance approved spending.
District officials and the board are now working to further develop the multi-year policy, said Margerm.