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Public board facing declining enrolment

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Sean Chase/Daily Observer
Renfrew County District School Board chairwoman Wendy Hewitt addresses Renfrew County council during their monthly session.

Sean Chase/Daily Observer Renfrew County District School Board chairwoman Wendy Hewitt addresses Renfrew County council during their monthly session.

Despite declining enrolment and funding shortfalls, the Renfrew County District School Board isn't planning any more school closures, Renfrew County council recently heard.

Appearing before council's monthly session in October, board officials unveiled a new strategic plan that will include a long-term accommodation plan that will look at all school sites and administrative buildings. Part of the plan is seeking imput from stakeholders including parents and municipalities.

“We realize there has been a lack of communication which is why we are here,” said board chairwoman Wendy Hewitt.

One of the biggest challenges facing the board is maintaining building inventory although many schools have declined in enrolment. The board has too much surplus space, according to Lisa Schimmens, superintendent for business and corporate services. They currently have capacity for 13,574 students, however, their total enrolment across the county is at 9,774. That leaves a space surplus of 4,328.

“That is equivalent to almost eight empty schools,” said Schimmens.

Secondary and high schools in Pembroke, Arnprior, Deep River, Renfrew and Cobden are currently below 65 per utilization. Enrolment is expected to rise to 6,462 by 2026 in the elementary schools and 3,312 in the secondary schools. The only place where they are running out of space is Petawawa, which will see a 25 per cent increase in enrolment. The town has only three schools, with the new Valour K-12 school designed for 1,000 students.

The board estimates it needs $120 million in capital funding over the next five years to renew infrastructure, however, they have only $24 million. Their current $135 million budget allocates 10 per cent for operational costs, including $2.5 million in utilities.

“We are heating and lighting empty space,” added Schimmens.

At this time, the board isn't planning any closures. Some on County council have been calling for school boards to amalgamate schools and resources to deal with declining enrolment and fewer dollars coming from the province.

“I don't hear any talk about resource sharing among school boards,” said Arnprior Reeve Walter Stack. “I always say there is one taxpayer and we need to work together.”

SChase@postmedia.com