Chilliwack school district wrestles with continued growth

Chilliwack schools 'packed to the walls,' says board chair Silvia Dyck.

School funding may be at provincial record high

Chilliwack is running out of places for students to sit.

“We’re just out of space,” Gerry Slykhuis, the school district’s secretary treasurer, told trustees. He was speaking to the school board at the first meeting of the school year on Tuesday night about the School District’s Five Year Plan. It was a meeting full of talk about Chilliwack’s steadily growing population, its bulging school district, and the newest problem — encroaching homeless camps and drug users.

While each issue is separate, they are also inter-related and the meeting focused heavily on all three.

Top of the list of concerns is finding more space for students. And the quickest way to do that is to move ahead with the addition to Promontory Heights elementary school.

That hasn’t been approved by the Ministry of Education yet, and comes with a price tag of about $4.7 million.  But Slykhuis said the Province is  “very, very supportive of the project.”

The expansion would add five classrooms to Promontory, and if the project were to be approved in the near future, the construction could start as early as next summer. But the addition, which has always been part of the full build-out plan, won’t even be enough to deal with the current student load. There are eight portables at the school.

But it would release pressure from the schools down the hill that are also over capacity. New students to Promontory are sent to Vedder, and when Vedder is full they are sent to Watson. The catchment areas for those schools is also rapidly expanding, as is Unsworth’s.

“There’s a huge demand for housing, and it’s needed, but it’s not helping our case,” Slykhuis added. The heavy growth on Promontory made the expansion necessary, he noted, but “doesn’t even come close to addressing the problem.”

“It in no way alleviates the need for another school,” he said.

But the question was posed whether it’s a new elementary school Chilliwack should be shooting for, or a middle school.

That bubble of high elementary school enrolment is moving its way to the middle school grades. And those schools are bursting at the seams as well. On one day last week, there were 14 middle schoolers with no desks to call their own, said Rohan Arul-Pragasam, assistant superintendent of schools.

The district often divides their schools at the highway when looking at movement of families, and needed resources. Last year, the south side had the lion’s share of the enrolment growth. This September, the north and south sides have grown equally.

On Sept. 14, there were 440 students. On Tuesday this week, that number was down to 409.

“Those changes are to be anticipated and it’s nothing to be alarmed about,” Arul-Pragasam said. They change day to day.  And the school population is likely to grow over the school year, as well. Last year’s surge in students came from job losses in Alberta, the Fort McMurray wildfire, and from more expensive communities to the west. Last year, the district accommodated about 100 new Grade 12 students, likely through “in-migration.”

“We can anticipate new families moving to Chilliwack throughout the school year,” he said.

The school board is dedicated to not allowing more than 30 students in classrooms, and in some cases, new students will not be going to their catchment area schools.

At Robertson and Bernard elementary, the district made “a conscious decision to bring class sizes down” even lower, to make sure each student had access to proper resources.

“We are packed to the walls,” said board chair Silvia Dyck.

Trustee Barry Neufeld questioned staff on the extra pressure on custodial and maintenance staff. With more students in the halls, and all classrooms being used, there is more work to be on each site, staff agreed.

The growing student population has also exhausted the portable building supply. Almost 70 are in use, largely for classroom use. The remaining stock has dwindled down to two, one of which is in disrepair and would require a lot of labour before being used.

The district will have to submit their requests from the Five Year Plan to the Ministry of Education by the end of September. Some of the items on the list include a new transformer at AD Rundle, sawdust extractors at Chilliwack and Vedder middle schools, mechanical upgrades at Little Mountain and Vedder elementary schools, a boiler upgrade at Unsworth, and heating and ventilation upgrades at Strathcona, Cultus Lake and Evans elementary schools. Not all of those items will make the list, and some may be paid for through $2.1 million fund announced by the Province earlier this year.

“Staff has been working on this (Five Year Plan) all summer,” Slykhuis said

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