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Zama City School future discussed at public meeting

November 22, 2019
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A number of area residents attended a Zama City School closure public meeting to discuss the future of the school.

A team of Fort Vermilion School Division Administrators made up of Mike McMann, Superintendent; Norman Buhler, Secretary-Treasurer; Scot Leys, Assistant Superintendent of Operations; Clark McAskile, FVSD Board of Trustees Chair, and Linda Kowal, Trustee for Rocky Lane, were present to discuss future plans with the school and answer questions. The meeting took place Thursday evening, Nov. 21, in Zama City.

“The purpose of the meeting is always to come back to the community and ask, ‘have things changed? What are you hearing?’” McMann asked, noting there is often a lot of rhetoric and emotion in these types of conversations and it is important to go to the source for information – in this case, the community members of Zama City.

“Legally, we have to come back and ask what has changed,” he said. “We would be crazy to make a decision and not have that context from you guys.”

There have been no students in the Zama City School for two years. A very limited number of residents and less than five homeschooled children remain in the community.

McMann said that between discussions with the energy industry operating in the area and discussions with the provincial government, there is a lot of uncertainty around funding and development in Zama City and the school. Ultimately, FVSD is responsible for educating children who live in Zama City, and that responsibility will not change in the event they shutter the school.

“If the Board does decide to permanently close down the school, the Division still legally has to educate children in the area,” McMann said. “Closure doesn’t take FVSD off the hook from that.”

One community member stated the closure of the school could make the hiring and retention of new employees to Zama City more difficult because families with children might be less willing to relocate to the area. It was suggested this issue might be partially resolved if the building were used as a congregated school site for homeschool children.

McMann said the provincial government does not see congregated homeschool sites as a viable education alternative.

“In terms of bringing homeschool children in, it kind of takes the definition of homeschooling away,” McMann said. “That is the problem.”

He said a better option would be for the community to look at the building as an opportunity to provide a learning area for other types of programming, such as post-secondary or safety training through local industry.

“The community can take some time to talk about how we could use it,” McMann said. “And then we could redraft an M.O.U. and go from there.”

An agreement between multiple organizations could help split costs such as utilities and make operation of the building affordable for community or industry groups.

“All we would have to do is figure out the total costs for operation and split it among the partners,” McMann said, adding FVSD would be one of the partners and contribute equally.

“We would just be saying it isn’t a school,” said McAskile. “But we would still own the building. We have lots of buildings that are not schools.”

There is also no interest from FVSD in moving the building, as it would be a very expensive process, and the process for demolition – should that be deemed necessary – could take 10 or 15 years to complete. There would be numerous opportunities for the public to purchase the property during that time.

“It is a very well-built building,” McMann said. “It is brick on one side, brick in the middle, and brick on the other side. It’s practically a bomb shelter with windows.”

A local resident raised a question around the removal process for two portables on the property. McMann explained those portables were nearly 40 years old and had far exceeded their life expectancy. The portables lacked heat and were not suitable for school use anymore, and permission was granted for them to be destroyed.

The FVSD Board of Trustees will address the issue of the school during their regular meeting in January, when they will have the option of making a decision or deferring a decision to another meeting later in the year.