Two classrooms worth of students have left the Coast Mountains School District (CMSD) here since December because their families couldn’t find an affordable place to rent – the latest casualties of the increasingly tight rental market gripping Terrace, B.C.
According to numbers provided by the school district, at Cassie Hall Elementary on the south side of Terrace, 14 families totalling 29 students have moved away since December. And at Suwilaawks Community School in the horseshoe neighbourhood, 20 students from 14 families have left over that same time period, meaning the district has lost 49 students mid-year.
The reason given for these particular moves, said CMSD superintendent Nancy Wells: rent increases.
“Pretty shocking,” Wells said. “It’s very unusual mid-year to see this much … I don’t really know what to say other than it’s an unexpected impact and we’re really sorry to lose those kids.”
She confirmed it is only these two schools who have lost students and that enrolment at other Terrace-area public schools is steady. Calls to private schools in Terrace confirmed their enrolment is also steady.
“We did have a spike in enrolment in the primary grades in Thornhill when the school year started this year, and we think that was due to people moving to Thornhill to find adequate housing they could afford,” said Wells.
“So, that was on the positive side. But now it would appear that families in the horseshoe and south of the tracks area are having to leave town to find housing.”
If this declining enrolment trend continues into next year – and Wells is predicting enrolment will be down more than originally expected – the district will see less money from the provincial ministry of education, which will affect the amount of jobs available for teachers and support staff. The district’s budget from the province is tied to the student count that takes place at the end of September each school year.
“This definitely causes an increase in our already declining enrolment – that’s two classes. It’s not good news,” Wells said.
But she said it’s “not a crisis. It’s something we will manage for our staffing for next year – however, a district never likes to see declining enrolment and we certainly don’t like to see accelerated declining enrolment. I guess the question is, will there be more?”
But there doesn’t have to be more, explains community development expert Marleen Morris, an associate director at the Community Development Institute (CDI) at the University of Northern British Columbia, on families leaving the city during this time of increased development.
“We definitely need to catch up, we definitely need to move quickly,” she said. “But it’s never too late.”
There are ways to prepare for the influx of industry and its various phases, minimize the risks, and subsequently ensure long-term benefits for the community – and there are lessons to be learned from communities that have gone through this before, like Fort McMurray and communities in northeastern B.C.
“We need to bring people together to develop an integrated strategy – a strategy that works between the economic, the workforce, the social sectors of the community,” said Morris. “Start minimizing the risks – for families, for example, who might otherwise have to leave, what can we do for them?”
Morris talks about “accordion solutions” – solutions to housing, and increased pressures on the social services sector that can expand and contract as development (and workers) ebbs and flows. They are solutions that can often be gained by working with industry, she said.
“Think about what we need in our communities after [these companies] are gone, and get them to do something that will be mutually beneficial – a win/win – and leverage something like housing out of that,” Morris said.
“That’s the huge opportunity out of this construction phase. To think about what could benefit the community in the long-term and then help to make that happen.”