Enrolment at 20-year-low but should stabilize

Student enrolment has fallen to a 20-year low, but the Bulkley Valley School District expect the decline will level off soon.

Student enrolment has fallen to a 20-year low, but senior officials with the Bulkley Valley School District expect the decline will level off soon.

“We think we’re pretty much at that plateau,” said Chris van der Mark, superintendent of schools.

“We should start seeing very modest modest increases—maybe not next year, but certainly within the next few years.”

A total of 2,302 students started fall classes at the nine public schools in Houston, Telkwa and Smithers.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, that is 136 students less than last year. It’s part of a long-term trend that has seen district enrolment fall every school year since 1997—the year that northwest forestry entered a collapse of its own.

“Despite a significant drop in enrolment, we run a balanced budget,” said van der Mark.

“And we’re not cutting programs,” he added, noting that Bulkley Valley schools offer vibrant arts, music, and athletics.

As for school closures, he said the issue isn’t on the table for any Bulkley Valley schools.

“We have nothing that’s even been discussed,” he said. “We have some small-ish schools, but that’s great,” he said.

Years of declining enrolment have squeezed the district budget, however.

The district has an overall budget of $24 million, $18 million of which goes to salaries for the equivalent of 278 full-time employees.

“With each student, you’re losing capacity,” said Steven Richards, the school district’s secretary-treasurer.

The Bulkley Valley school district receives about $10,000 in provincial funding for every full-time student, he said.

“At some point, that loss of capacity each year becomes a problem,” said Richards.

The district finally hit that point last year.

For the first time, Richards said, school officials had to draw surplus funds they could not repay by year end.

“We have to change that,” he said. “It’s not a sustainable budget practice.”

To balance the books, Richards said the district will have to run a leaner staff.

But there is no hard-and-fast link between  student numbers and teaching staff, he said.

Dozens of student spaces did not get refilled from last year, for example, but that loss is spread across the district. On the whole, only four full-time equivalent positions were lost this year, including two teacher positions and 1.5 positions for principals.

“That’s the bad news,” said Richards. The good news, he said, is that the provincial birth rate—a major factor in how the district projects enrolment—is expected to rise.

The district projects enrolment numbers based on several factors, including birth rates and any major shifts in the regional economy.