Two weeks from now, the Brandon School Division will hold public consultations that will address challenges faced by city schools over growing enrolment.
At issue is the fact that our school facilities will soon be unable to meet the needs of the growing student population — a wonderful but difficult situation for any community to grapple with and one made more desperate by the province’s recent mandate to limit class sizes to 20 students — 23 for some schools — for kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms.
Consider these statistics on class size provided to the Sun by division board chair Mark Sefton on Thursday:
• On the first day of school in September 2011, there were a total of 7,923 students within the division, including those from our immigrant population.
• As of this week, Sefton said that number had risen to 8,163 students, up 240 students from a year ago.
• And within five years, the division projects Brandon schools will be bursting at the seams with more than 9,000 students.
• In those same five years, the division is expected to fully comply with the provincial mandate, the cost of which has not been fully disclosed.
To simply meet the needs of the 2012-13 school year, Sefton said that three portable classrooms have been installed within the division — two at École New Era School and one at Alexander School — at a cost of $200,000 each. Thankfully, as division trustee Doug Karnes told the Sun a few months back, these new portable classrooms won’t cost the division, ie. Brandon taxpayers, a thing.
“The Public Schools Finance Board pays for them and it also pays for the electrical hookup, security hookup, etc.,” Karnes said.
But as the finance board has noted, portable classrooms are a stop-gap solution that will only work for a short time. The division says ultimately, a new school must be up and running by the fall of 2015.
“There’s only so much tinkering that you can do,” Sefton told the Sun. “New Era is the most acute situation, but we have a number of other schools that are very rapidly approaching capacity. And by the time we have that 20K3 fully implemented … given our current stock of schools, we’ll have most of our elementary schools at, or beyond capacity.”
And while immigration to Brandon has drawn hundreds of families, which does increase the overall tax base and adds more money into the division budget, many of those families add two, three, four or more children to the division’s enrolment.
The root of the problem, as with most things, is money — there’s simply not enough of it to build everything we need.
Though Premier Greg Selinger announced the planned implementation of the K-3 plan last year during the provincial election campaign, with more than a billion-dollar provincial debt, and deficit spending still projected into the hundreds of millions of dollars this fiscal year, we are more than a little skeptical that the NDP will have the money to pay for it.
For example, we need more classroom space for the provincial kindergarten to Grade 3 mandate — thus far only $131,000 has been received.
And yet, Sefton remains hopeful in anticipation of a meeting with the provincial education minister later this month.
“Given that this 20K3 was part of their election mandate, something they announced during the election, I want to believe very much that they’re going to honour it,” Sefton said earlier this week. “They said there would be dollars for it and we need to hold them to that. I believe there will be.
“We may quibble down the road as to how much money is going to be available, but I believe they are going to come across and help us out, because after all, this is something that they really wanted to implement.”
As Sefton notes, trustees take “no joy” in having to go back to Brandon taxpayers with their cap in hand to feed the growing need. However, whether it be due to growing enrolment or the provincial mandate, the division will have to take on added costs.
In our opinion, Brandonites must be prepared to pay a little more at the front end to see the benefits down the road. If we can invest in kids’ education today — EAL or otherwise — and get them into a career that pays them well, they will become tomorrow’s taxpayers and community leaders. That’s a long-term goal worthy of investment.
But that doesn’t mean we should be stuck with provincial mandates we can’t afford. As we have said before, something’s gotta give. If the province can somehow find the money to fund all of its promises, wonderful. If not, it should give Brandon a little more latitude, so that local ratepayers won’t be pinched too hard.
In the meantime, we urge Brandonites to attend the consultations with an open mind and with the best interests of our community at heart.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 8, 2012