Free Basilico’s burgers served up with a side of protest petition helped wrap up another year of no answers from the provincial government on new schools for the West Shore.
A barbecue rally held Thursday afternoon at Belmont secondary drew hundreds of people to the school, most of whom added their signature to a growing petition calling for the Ministry of Education to fund the long-running plan to build new high schools in Colwood and Langford, and to sell the current Belmont land to underwrite the project.
Stephanie Longstaff, president of the Sooke Parents’ Education Advisory Council, has hand delivered hundreds of letters of support for the plan to Minister of Education George Abbott’s office at the legislature.
“I’ll just keep bringing them in. We don’t expect much to happen in the summer, but we’ll keeping bringing in letters until we get an answer,” Longstaff said. “Last year they said they’d have an answer in May, and May has come and gone. Parents are trying to keep this issue out there. They are tired of waiting.”
Earlier this month Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan, Esquimalt-Royal Roads MLA Maurine Karagianis and Belmont student Ravi Parmar met with Abbott to press the need for new high schools in the face of deteriorating Belmont secondary.
Horgan said Abbott understands and supports the plan, but the B.C. Liberals need to wait until the dust settles with the referendum on the harmonized sales tax.
“The plan is supported by the minister, the community and politicians of all stripes,” Horgan said at the barbecue. “I’m quite confident we’ll get it done when the government gets its fiscal act together.
“The tragedy of the HST is it’s created two years of uncertainty for the economy and for this project. If the government isn’t sure of it’s revenues, it’s hard to budget.”
Sooke School District officials have been lobbying the Ministry of Education staff and various ministers for years, receiving neither a “yes” or “no” — although it did receive a “maybe.”
Earlier this year, former education minister Margaret MacDiarmid indicated to Sooke School District trustees that the ministry might fund one school in the short term, but not two. The minister also noted that many other high schools in the province are in worse shape than Belmont and have priority.
At the same time, MacDiarmid told the Goldstream Gazette that building two schools is only a matter of time, although it could be a long time. The Ministry of Education has paid $5 million for land in Royal Bay and $4.3 million to add land to the Glen Lake elementary site, both earmarked for future high schools.
The provincial budget came and went without funding for SD 62, but last month, Parmar, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Belmont, ignited renewed publicity for the project after staging a student walkout.
“It’s gratifying to see how much support there is for this in the community. I’m doing this for my brother. I want to see him in a new high school,” Parmar said, with his seven-year-old brother Rick, a Grade 1 Millstream elementary student.
“We want to keep up the momentum. If there’s no answer in the summer, we’ll keep working really hard at it in September.”
Parmar’s sister Ravina, a Spencer middle school student, said her family is stunned but elated by the support and media coverage of her older brother’s campaign to highlight problems of the aging Belmont building.
“All I want is for my little brother (Rick) to have a good education in a healthy school,” Ravina said. “I’m really proud of what Ravi is doing. He’s worked really hard, and I hope they get new schools.”
Rally supporter Hans Fredrickson said he hopes that new high schools will be built within at least a decade so his kindergarten-aged granddaughter can attend a new Belmont .
“If it was this Belmont, I wouldn’t be happy,” Fredrickson said. “My daughter graduated from here in 1991 and it was held together with duct tape then. It hasn’t changed.”