Spotlight on rural education: Trustees discuss challenges at Northern Interior forum

Educating students in rural and remote places is challenging, as long-distance busing, maintaining schools during severe winters, and boarding students who live too far from school are costs that cannot be brought down, despite declining enrolment.

To showcase these unique challenges, a number of northern school districts are urging the province to bring back the remote and rural advisory committee, explains Tim Bennett, a Prince George school district trustee.

“One thing we are focusing on is when it comes to the funding model for northern school districts, the province’s per pupil funding model doesn’t quite work,” Bennett said. “The Prince George school district is 52,000 square kilometres in size and it takes five hours to get from furthest point to furthest point. It costs millions to provide transportation and that doesn’t change when educating kids living in rural and remote areas.”

Prince George school district’s geographic size is actually small compared to neighbouring Peace River North, which is more than 93,000 square kilometres. In comparison, Vancouver’s and Surrey’s school districts are 132 and 328 square kilometres, respectively.

Due to the geographic vastness of northern school districts, one school district boards students during the week as commuting daily on the school bus would take hours each day. In other rural and remote communities, school districts struggle with closing schools due to declining enrolment as it would drastically increase the commute to school. Such long drives can be dangerous in the winter.

“It makes sense to put more kids into one building, but to put them on the bus for one-and-a-half hours each way, what kind of quality of life is that providing to students,” Bennett said rhetorically. “We can’t put kids on the bus for two hours a day to get to school.”

In the urban area of Prince George, many schools are actually near or above 95 per cent capacity, a threshold that the Ministry of Education uses when it considers providing additional infrastructure funds. However, as a whole, the Prince George school district is not at that magic number. The high school in Mackenzie, a forestry town, can handle 800 students but currently has 200. In Fort St. John, which is in the Peace River North school district and is where a Site C dam is being built, they added 17 portables due to rising student enrolment.

“Rural communities are so important to the province and they are really struggling,” Bennett added. “They are directly impacted by the economy.”

Schools in the north face extreme weather, from hot, dry summers to temperatures below 30 Celsius in the winter, which takes a toll on aging school infrastructure. Factor in the ever-increasing cost of heating old schools that are not energy efficient or well-insulated, as well as increasing snow removal and transportation costs, and northern school district trustees struggle when balancing the budget each year with minimal effects to students.

To showcase their challenges, the North Interior branch, comprising of eight school districts (Cariboo-Chilcotin, Quesnel, Central Coast, Prince George, Peace River South, Peace River North, Fort Nelson and Nechako Lakes), held a forum on rural education last October. The eight school districts encompass more than half the province, geographically. A number of MLAs attended, including Education Minister Mike Bernier, who was new to the position at the time.

“Having these MLAs in attendance really was a highlight for many,” Bennett said. “The MLAs got to see what kind of work we are doing and it allowed us to have a two-way conversation about the challenges that are unique to our district.”

And the fact that Bernier is the MLA for Peace River South, as well a former city councillor and mayor of Dawson Creek, wasn’t lost on the attendees either.

“Minister Bernier was only on the job for a couple of weeks but he seemed very interested,” Bennett said. “It was great to have someone from the north appointed to this position.”

While the Northern Interior branch has not heard back from Bernier about reinstating the advisory committee, which is supported by the BC School Trustees Association, the branch will follow up with the minister.

“We have been advocating for years, calling for the ministry to re-establish the committee,” Bennett said. “The reason why is because we need to be more at the table to provide feedback on any new policies and directives because we do have unique challenges in the north interior.”

Written by Christopher Sun, Writer, BCSTA

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