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School division tackles tough times

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The Swan Valley School Division (SVSD) held community consultations in Birch River, Bowsman, Minitonas and Benito throughout the past few weeks, concluding their tour in Swan River last Thursday (Nov. 9).
Seeking input from community members, the board presented the financial challenges they are dealing with and discussed options for resolving them with school consolidations, school restructuring and school closures.
“We are at a point where we feel that we have cut all that we can from our schools,” said SVSD Chair Kelli Riehl to a room of approximately 90 people at the Swan River session. “So, we are looking for ideas and input. We have no plan right now. We don’t know what we are going to do.”
SVSD Superintendent Tim Mendel then took to the mic to fill attendees in on the fact that enrollment in the division has decreased by more than 350 students in 10 years, down to 1435 in 2016-17 from 1784 in 2006-07.
“Right now we need to educate people on the financial piece and the amount of money that is being spent on empty buildings,” said Mendel. “We need to make decisions on if the taxpayers want to spend their money on buildings or programming. Or, if they want to raise taxes to keep things like they are.
“This is why these conversations really should have more than parents with children in school attending because these decisions could effect everybody.”
With some of the division’s schools having as high as 80 percent vacancy, the operational costs to educate each student are some of the highest in the province. And, with the government indicating that cuts to education funding were on the horizon, the need to streamline our local education system has never been more evident.
“Right now we don’t have a timeline and the board just wanted to gauge where the communities are at and what kind of change they would be open to,” Mendel said. We know that we can’t continue status quo.”
The board presented a number of possible options which included consolidation of Swan River Schools to create Grade K-3, 4-6 and 7-12 split facilities and in Minitonas and possible closures both in Swan River and in outlying areas such as Birch River, Bowsman and Minitonas.
The crowd then was able to split into groups and discuss the presented options as well as come up with other ideas, ways to repurpose facilities in the communities and make the best decisions for the entire Valley’s well being.
“I think many were surprised at our suggestions to make changes in the Swan River Schools,” said Mendel following the presentation. “But, when the board looked at it they found it to be an opportunity to look at the entire division for efficiencies and not just the outlying schools.
“We haven’t had a lot of strongly negative reactions because I think the numbers, facts and figures speak for themselves.
“Unfortunately our board doesn’t have the luxury of looking at what is best for individual areas but we have to look at what is best to provide the highest level of education for the entire Valley in the long term.”
Mendel noted that historical decisions like the formation of the division from district schools and the construction of a central high school were tough choices at the time they were made but proven, over the years, to be great ones that have offered Valley youth opportunities they would not have had otherwise.
“Now we need to take all the information in, put aside a day to go through it and start to talk about what direction should be taken,” he said.
“On top of that we need to factor in budgets, elections and, if there are closures, ministerial approval. I think it will all depend on the provincial government and funding. Even if we catch a break this year, it doesn’t mean a long term solution.”
The full presentation from the community consultations is available on the SVSD website at www.svsd.ca. Once there you will also find a short questionnaire that the division is encouraging all members of the community to take a moment to complete.