by LAURA KEIL
14 rural education recommendations were considered by the School District #57 (Prince George) Board of Education at their regular meeting in McBride last week.
The passed motions include a pilot project for billeting in schools during tournaments, improved rural hiring practices, more local maintenance of school property, and improved internet and connectivity.
Among the ideas turfed or not considered, were changing the name of the school district to better reflect the geographical area and the hiring of a District Principal of Rural Education.
On the question of billeting, the pilot project would allow district teams to stay overnight in the gyms of Valemount, McBride, Mackenzie schools and John McInnis Centre during tournaments.
The district report says this will encourage urban schools to travel to rural areas and to ease the burden on rural teams coming to Prince George.
“It’s a huge concern to rural communities, the cost of their teams when they visit schools, particularly in Prince George,” says trustee Sheryl Warrington.
Trustee Trish Bella spoke in favour of the motion, but says she would like to see out-of-district students allowed to billet as well, if the pilot is successful.
“Why those students wouldn’t be able to sleep in the schools, I’m not 100% sure.”
Valemount girls basketball coach Tim Nusse says he appreciates the board looking at billeting, as he has raised the issue with them in the past. But he has concerns over the policy’s effectiveness.
Right now, Robson Valley teams often billet in private schools or in public schools outside the district.
Nusse says billeting is not as simple as providing the gym for sleeping. For instance, in order to make travelling affordable, girls and boys teams often travel on the same bus and would need separate spaces to sleep. The policy stipulates that only the gym can be used.
Using the gym for sleeping is also a problem in terms of tournament logistics – teams have to wait until the last game – sometimes as late as 10pm – to set up for bed, and be out of there an hour before games the next morning.
Teams also require a kitchen and showers, which are not mentioned in the policy.
“Maintenance and security are very real issues they need to be concerned with,” he says. But his experience shows that these can be overcome.
He doesn’t think the policy will encourage Prince George teams to travel to Valemount, since they have never accepted a tournament invitation due to transportation costs.
Nusse thinks it would be wise for the District to put some money into a transportation fund that could be accessed by any school – urban or rural – that needs to travel.
In order to get enough games to qualify for Provincials, the senior girls’ team travels approx. 5,000-6,000km each season.
Expenses for the bus or vehicles, tournament fees, and accommodations can run as high as $1500-$2000 for a single tournament.
Nusse says teams get a small allowance from the school’s budget, but the bulk of the roughly $10,000 required for the three girls’ teams per season is acquired through fundraising and participation fees.
“Billeting becomes a major help if we’re able to do it,” he says.
He notes hosting teams in Valemount is a bonus not just for saving travel costs but also for players’ academic life.
“Valemount students get to stay home and sleep in their own beds and be very fresh on Monday morning for classes.”
The school board also discussed the formation of local societies to provide busses for extra-curricular activities, rather than relying on busses that are dispatched from Prince George.
Trustee Warrington says the central dispatch is cost prohibitive for rural schools.
“For a number of years there has been a request for an opportunity for a bus service provided in the local area,” she says.
She adds they looked at this in-depth on the committee level and there are legal and operational issues. The motion directs school district staff to investigate the legal and operational issues related to the establishment of non-profit organizations to provide a transportation service for extra-curricular activites.
Trustees Bruce Wiebe, Bob Harris and Sheryl Warrington all spoke in favour of the motion.
McBride Secondary Principal Derrick Shaw says the recommendation is unlikely to help McBride teams, however.
“By my calculations, I cannot operate a society-owned bus for less money than I currently lease busses from Diversified for,” he says, citing the cost of insurance, depreciation, tires, inspections, gas, and maintenance.
He adds that a community bus will only shuttle teams to one location at a time, despite there being multiple out-of-town tournaments some weekends.
“Even if we had a bus we owned, I would still need additional transportation for other teams from time to time.”
Valemount Secondary Principal Dan Kenkel is also president of the Valemount Community Bus Society which owns a bus that can be rented by community groups including teams.
He says he has offered support to other rural communities in moving their extra-curricular transportation agenda forward, but wouldn’t comment on this policy.
The board then discussed the issue of maximizing local staff for preventative maintenance and repairs and coordinating the work of maintenance personnel “in the most efficient manner possible.” There was no motion on this; the board is bound by the collective agreement with CUPE Local 4991 for trades and grounds employees.
The board moved to improve hiring practices in rural schools by possibly job-sharing school positions with local governments.
The board also looked at providing better rural funding forecasts, improving connectivity and computer services to rural schools, and expanding video-conferencing (deferred until May 31st meeting).
The school board defeated a motion to explore changing the name of the district from School District #57 (Prince George) to something more encompassing of the rural areas, but no trustees were in favour, many citing the costs involved.
“I think the idea is a good one; I think the timing is the problem,” Trustee Harris says. “We’re engaged in a process to try to reinforce the timbers in the barn; we shouldn’t necessarily be looking at painting the doors.”