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Nokomis defends school viability

Eighty-eight per cent of the population of Nokomis came out to fight to keep their school on March 27.
Nokomis Mayor Fred Wright speaks at the public meeting held at Nokomis School on March 27, part of the school review process being undertaken by Horizon School Division.

Eighty-eight per cent of the population of Nokomis came out to fight to keep their school on March 27.Approximately 290 community members out of the town's population of 397 attended the Horizon School Division's public meeting in the Nokomis School review process at the Nokomis School gym. Nokomis School is under review by the Horizon School Division (HZSD) for the fourth time in five years. HZSD is looking at discontinuing one or more grades, or completely closing the school as of August 1 of this year.The HZSD announced last fall that it had decided to place Nokomis School under review once again. A decision was made to continue the review at a board meeting on January 31, as "the board is satisfied that the review demonstrated projected low enrolment, budgetary constraints and difficulties meeting program needs within the existing constraints," states the board's notes. This decision was made after a presentation by the Nokomis School Review Committee (NSRC), which argued that program offerings at the school are sufficient, and that enrolment at the K-12 school should hit 88 by 2016. It was 55 as of September 30, 2011.The HZSD numbers, meanwhile, show enrolment rising to just 60 students by 2016.The next step in the review process was to hold a public meeting in Nokomis. That was done on March 27.The entire HZSD board of education was in attendance at that public meeting, reported David Mark of the NSRC, along with HZSD director of education Marc Danylchuk and chief financial officer Vince Gaudet.While the majority of the crowd was made up of electors, ratepayers and students in the attendance area of Nokomis School, MLA Greg Brkich was in attendance, as was Gary A. Meschishnick, QC, who has supported the NSRC's legal work.A large number of preschoolers were there as well, to give credence to the NSRC's argument that enrolment at the school will be increasing in coming years. "We had a great little assembly of kids who did their best to remain focused," Mark said. "All in all, our Grade 1 and Kindergarten kids did an excellent job representing themselves. Some of the preschoolers were present, but some are just too wee. We plan on introducing these little ones to the board when they return to Nokomis School for their April 23 meeting."Mark says he hopes the HZSD accepts the NSRC's enrolment projections now."We have been frustrated seeing our numbers called hearsay and not seeing our data included in projections," said Mark. "We have had to insist in seeing our numbers adjusted to reflect the facts, but still they are reluctant partners in the process."The HZSD has said they based their enrolment projections on numbers gathered by the health region. The NSRC's are based on a survey of the community conducted twice in the past year.A number of presentations were made to the board at the public meeting, which the board stated was an "information-gathering meeting," not one where they planned to enter into a debate.The board itself explained a bit about the school review process and why Nokomis School is under review. According to the Last Mountain Times, Danylchuk stated at the meeting that "current space utilization based on the number of students per square foot of space in Nokomis School is around 44 per cent. That means Nokomis School could readily support upwards of 165 students. The September 30, 2011 enrolment here was 55, and the current enrolment is 49."Danylchuk explained that enrolments have been declining across the HZSD for the past six years, which has meant that provincial funding to the division has declined as well.Though HZSD is expected to receive a significant funding increase this year, thanks to the change in the funding formula by the provincial government, the board is still projecting a $3.5 million deficit.Gaudet, the Times stated, reported that the annual cost per student at Nokomis School is $10,642 compared to a division average of $8,015. He also said that Nokomis School uses 448 square feet per student, while the division average is 200."These numbers will impact us in the future with the new funding formula because the Ministry of Education is very much focused on funding by square metre," Gaudet was quoted as saying in the Times. "If it is determined that we have surplus space in the division, that will act against us with respect to funding."When asked about the division's emphasis on cost per square foot after the meeting, Mark noted that "I don't think one formula can or should be applied to such a diverse collection of facilities and communities, both urban and rural. We show viable growth and with each new enrolled pupil over the next four years, the square footage per student decreases."Should Nokomis School close, students would likely go to Drake or Lanigan for classes. Mark doesn't believe many people would support a process where students would have to ride an hour and a half on the bus one way to school, just to satisfy the per square foot formula. Leading the public presentations at the meeting was Nokomis Mayor Fred Wright."First, I think the town was in disbelief," he said of the review process starting again. "We've been in disbelief for the past four years. Then, it becomes anger because we are very passionate about our town, and the things that we are working hard to achieve. We keep getting kicked in the shins by being under review again."Nokomis, he argued, has a lot going for it, including a new housing subdivision, new streets going in, a new 18-unit adult living complex being developed, and a new motel that will open shortly. Homes are being purchased, and Wright expects the town to benefit from the growth in the potash industry in the area. "I ask the board to please put our children first. There is no need for our children to be riding the bus for an hour or so when we have an excellent school right here," Wright said."I ask the board to keep the status quo for our school in Nokomis and give us time to continue our growth, both with our children and our community. And as you can see, we're working on it, and there are enough children here this evening to show you that," Wright concluded. Nokomis School students spoke out in defence of their school. Grade 12 student Kelsey Halstead stated that "I have been given the upper hand in many situations by attending a small school. We have small classes, which means more one-on-one time with teachers, and students who may need extra help can receive it."The students all get to know each other, she added, and interact in various ways. As for class offerings, Halstead stated she has taken classes through Distance Education, and has had no problem dealing with the technology that involves at the school. The honours student added, "I truly believe that Nokomis School has opened many doors for me and others, and that closing our school would be a huge mistake."Nokomis School graduate Lisa Bart echoed Halstead's statements. "I also took four or five classes by correspondence, and even if we don't have teaching staff available for some courses in the school, correspondence courses are a great way to take the classes we need."The correspondence classes, she added, gave her the work ethic to get things done on her own."Nokomis School was a great place to grow up in, and it created long-lasting friends and relationships. I hope the board definitely considers what the kids are getting out of the school," she said. Parents also got their say. Tim Hendry, chair of the NSRC, stated "As a parent here tonight, I think we've proven that our children are receiving an excellent education, with high graduation rates, the appropriate number of credits, receiving all the core classes and many extras..... Although our enrolment numbers are low, we have provided numbers showing an increase of around 20 per cent over the next two years, with more children to follow."Times editor Dave Degenstein asked some pointed questions of the board, including whether a year or two is enough time to put a plan in place for a reviewed school and have it produce results. Board chair Jim Hack replied that "I do know that the projected growth that we've seen over the last three years has not been significant enough to discontinue the review."Degenstein also questioned the board about their accumulated surplus, which according to Gaudet, sits at $19 million, most of which is to be spent on deferred maintenance. "Yes, it looks as if we have a lot of money," Gaudet said, "but if we're going to commit to doing a lot of maintenance on our schools, and depending how we are funded by the Ministry... we have a lot of work to do in our facilities. And that doesn't speak to any of the programming needs, new business, any of those other capital needs."Nokomis resident Patti Shalapta also spoke. "You should be helping the students by keeping the school open, not working against them and their parents," she was quoted as telling the board. "This is what has been going on with the constant reviews, though some board members may deny that fact. Board members need to do some real deep thinking, and most important of all, listening," she said. "Read all the information provided by our NSRC. Listen to what has been said tonight."She also challenged the board members to stand and show their support for keeping Nokomis School open for all grades, and commit to no more reviews. Only two of the 14 board members stood. Mark also spoke at the meeting, and referred to the huge amount of information the NSRC and the community have submitted to the board in the past. "We have collected copious amounts of information over the past four reviews, 300 pages of reports, hundreds of letters of support, all clearly stating support for a K to 12 facility," Mark said. Mark also quoted Ron Gleim of Prairie South School Division (PSSD). Gleim stated that the school closure issue is confrontational and not a good experience for anyone involved. Gleim said that the reviews waste valuable time and resources, and that because PSSD found that each community had unique challenges and opportunities, they decided to support small schools and not close them. His statements resulted in a standing ovation."I would say let's not worry about the 44 per cent space utilization," Mark stated. "I would say let's find solutions that retain this facility and increase its usage."Increasing usage of the school would involve reaching out to the community, to develop partnerships with clubs and associations, Mark noted. Fitness and yoga classes, art and music workshops, community apprenticeship programs - these are examples he listed of what the school could be used for, if given a chance. At the close of the meeting, a recording of a song developed by local singer, Little Miss Higgins and the students of Nokomis School, was played. The board gave the song a standing ovation . Both sides remained respectful throughout the meeting, Mark indicated afterwards. Mark feels "more leadership is needed and essential if we are going to truly balance the needs of individual communities and attendance areas with circumstances of our division and 29,000 square kilometre territory. Other divisions have found a way, so let's work together, be creative, and look to what works and proceed in a more constructive and positive way," he said. The board will meet in Nokomis on April 23, and will hold a special meeting April 25 in Lanigan to consider the issue. For the April 23, meeting, staff of the school will meet with the board, and one other guest has been invited to speak, and other community members will get to present their thoughts, as well, Mark reported.