Oil & gas crash makes enrolment projection difficult for Fort Nelson schools

Teachers and staff at NE B.C. district will spend first two days of 2016/17 school year counting heads, population fluctuation makes enrolment projection impractical

Fort Nelson elementary students will spend the first two days of school attending assemblies and catching up with friends. Teachers and staff, meanwhile, will be counting heads.  

School District 81, located in the heart of B.C.’s oil and gas patch, has been forced to revamp how it puts together class lists amid an economic downturn that has made it difficult to accurately project enrolment.  

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Unlike other districts, K-4 students in Fort Nelson will spend the first two days of school in their classes from last year while administrators gauge enrolment figures, according to letter sent home to parents at J.S. Clark Elementary. They will then be assigned a teacher, with regular classes beginning  Sept. 9. 

“With the downturn in the economy, it has been particularly difficult to establish classroom configurations with constantly changing projected enrolment figures,” the letter reads. “Our classroom sizes are changing as we receive updated information on families moving away and new families coming to our community.” 

School District 81 Superintendent Diana Samchuk said the district initially changed how it prepares elementary school classes at the start of the last school year. 

“Last year, because of the downturn in the economy, we were unsure what our actual enrolment would come in as,” she said. 

Despite the downturn, enrolment actually grew that year. 

“We were pleasantly surprised. We’re waiting for our numbers to come in today and we’ll see where we are,” Samchuk said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult (to gauge enrolment) as the economy has taken such a downturn, with people coming and going.”  

It’s unclear how many families have left Fort Nelson due to the downturn—brought on by a drop in oil and gas prices that began in late 2014. 

Jaylene MacIver, economic development officer for the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, said they estimate the region’s population has shrunk by 1,000 people since the last census. Based on vacancy rates and last year’s school enrolments, she pegged the region’s population at 4,200. 

“That’s always been one of our huge challenges,” she said. “In any resource community, populations (have) peaks and valleys depending on the activity at the time. You can see a whole (resource) cycle happen in those four years.”   

SD 81 was the seventh-smallest school district in the province last year, with an enrolment of 769. 

School started for Fort Nelson elementary students Sept. 7. The district plans to post final class lists Sept. 9. School districts have until the end of the month to submit final enrolment numbers. 

reporter@dcdn.ca 

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