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Alberni schools face another round of school closures

More schools in the Alberni Valley are likely to close in the next few years, casualties of declining enrolments and provincial funding cutbacks.

In an interview with The Tyee, Kenneth Zydyk, president of the Alberni District Teachers' Union, said the district had closed five schools in 2003. The properties had been sold and the district gained a surplus of $800,000. That surplus, he said, is now gone.

Meanwhile, Victoria this fall shocked schools all over B.C. by cutting the Annual Facilities Grant, which districts had been counting on for repairs and renovations. In Alberni's case, Zydyk said, it meant a loss of $1.2 million.

Zydyk said the district also faces extra expenditures for the Harmonized Sales Tax and increased MSP premiums.

School board chair Larry Ransom said the district has launched an operational review based on budget concerns and the district's declining enrolment. Alberni now has just 3700 students.

Ransom told The Tyee that the review will be completed early in the new year, and he expects public input before the board decides which schools to close. They will likely be elementaries, he said, and a key factor will be a given school's need for renovation. With the Annual Facilities Grant no longer available, it may not be worthwhile to keep some schools open if they need major upgrades.

"We've advocated to the Ministry of Education for funding consideration," Ransom said. "The government won't provide more money, so we're streamlining."

He noted that simply selling the properties is no longer easy. Under current ministry policy, the provincial government must approve any sale of school property except to another board or to an independent school. Any income gained from sales must go to maintain other schools.

With Alberni's population declining and the forest industry in difficulty, such options seem unlikely. Instead, the board may simply have to demolish the buildings and leave the lots vacant.

Ransom said he expects more Alberni schools will have to close in future years, but does not foresee many layoffs for teachers and staff. Instead, retiring teachers will not be replaced.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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