Funding for new high schools remains in limbo; community support gauged with survey
John Stubbs Memorial kindergarten kids paid rapt attention to the storytelling guest during a mid-morning reading session. That it was Education Minister George Abbott probably didn’t matter – Curious George stories are always enticing.
With district and school officials in tow, Abbott toured the newest SD 62 school Thursday, which had a four classroom addition built over the summer to make way for full day kindergarten. The veteran minister also announced the school’s Great Shakeout earthquake exercise over the PA system.
“The highlight of my day is reading Curious George Makes Pancakes. It’s been a lot of fun,” Abbott said.
John Stubbs school is indicative of student growth that will move through the district in upcoming years and decades. SD 62 added at least 200 new kindergarten students this year and John Stubbs itself has 108 kindergarten kids in six classrooms.
Sooke district officials have lobbied for two new West Shore high schools directly with Abbott and his predecessors many times over the years. They promised to ease off during Thursday’s John Stubbs visit, but Abbott acknowledged the rapid residential growth on the West Shore and the need for new schools.
Along with Surrey and Langley, SD 62 is one of the few districts in B.C. seeing a net growth of students.
“Sooke is one of a handful of school districts that is seeing strong growth, and will continue, especially in the (West Shore) area,” Abbott said. “The board has made a strong case for additional capital investment. They’ve made an excellent case, no doubt.”
The long-standing SD 62 business plan that calls for a new high school at Glen Lake elementary and one at Royal Bay in Colwood. The district would help underwrite the project by selling the current Belmont property, valued around $25 to $30 million.
The ministry bought 15.6 acres in Royal Bay for $5 million in 2006. Last year it funded five acres of additional land at Glen Lake for $4.3 million. Abbott said its a matter of waiting for the provincial treasury board to lay out priorities for capital spending.
“The prudent purchase of property has been made,” he said. “It’s a matter of working patiently with the process.”
News schools, an arts centre and community support
The West Shore Chamber of Commerce has helped gauge the level of community interest for two new schools with survey conducted over the past year. The survey also queried about support for a future arts centre in Royal Bay, next to the proposed high school.
People logged hundreds of comments through an online questionnaire and the chamber conducted surveys with youth and community stakeholders. The vast majority of respondents supported both projects, although it can’t be considered a valid statistical poll.
“The art centre proposal has been around for years. We wanted to see if it had legs, if the community supported it,” said SD 62 superintendent Jim Cambridge. “And we decided to reenforce community support for two high schools. It’s great to see that in the survey results.”
About 94 per cent of respondents supported the high schools plan, and 96 supported building an arts centre. Virtually all supported replacing aging Belmont secondary, although a few questioned why it couldn’t be built on the fields behind the existing high school. A key part of the SD 62 plan is selling Belmont’s property to help fund new schools.
Cambridge expects the provincial treasury board to make funding announcements in November or December. Earlier this year the Ministry of Education suggested it might fund one school, but not two. The superintendent doubts that would work.
“The plan is for two schools, but it could be done in stages, with a six month lead on one,” he said. “The project would need to be concurrent. We’d like them to open within a year of each other.”
The proposed arts centre – coined the Emily Carr Performing Arts Centre – has the backing of about 30 arts organizations in Greater Victoria, a group chaired by chamber CEO Dan Spinner. The Canadian Centre for the Performing Arts and the Sooke Philharmonic, among others, are looking for space to grow, he said.
The concept involves building a performing and visual arts centre in concert with the new Colwood high school. The space would be shared between students and community arts groups.
“Arts centres are a crucial part of a healthy community. It’s a great economic development concept, there is no downside with economic impact,” Spinner said. “There was substantive, positive support for this in ways that surprised us.”
The next step for the arts centre is a feasibility study, which will outline the approximate theatre size, construction budget, estimated user demand and other details. That study would backstop a capital fundraising campaign.
“A lot depends on the economy and how buoyant people are feeling. But it’s more a matter of when than if. If you get a major donor or two to stand up, that inspires others,” Spinner said. “This might take five to 10 years, but it will take a few years to build a high school. The West Shore has a good track record of doing what it needs to do.”