The Ministry of Education says it might fund a single new high school on the West Shore, but not two, an offering that could trash years of planning around expected growth in Colwood and Langford.
Sooke School District board chair Wendy Hobbs admits her meeting with Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid last Thursday didn’t pan out as expected.
“They told us if they funded anything, it would be one school site,” Hobbs said Monday. “For the school district it is very frustrating. We’ve spent money on $200,000-worth of reports to find out where (growth) is. To be told (one school), it makes us almost have to go back to the drawing board.”
SD 62 has mapped out a 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.
“We simply said it might be difficult for the government to fund two at the same time,” MacDiarmid said in an interview with the Gazette. “The message we want to give the board is it might not be possible to do two secondary schools in the district.”
To a certain degree, the ministry has already committed itself to two schools on the West Shore: In 2006 it bought 15.6 acres in Royal Bay for $5 million. Last year it funded five acres of additional land at Glen Lake elementary for $4.3 million. MacDiarmid agreed, saying “at some point the schools will be built. The question is when.”
MacDiarmid said she is aware of the population pressure on the West Shore and the deteriorating state of Belmont, but stressed the province is seeing a number of growing districts with old schools.
“It is very difficult. The district wants to start yesterday. I understand the Sooke School District’s point of view: the time is now. But the government has the responsibility to look at all 60 school districts. That is our job.”
Langford is eyeing Belmont school property for a continuation of its Jacklin Road commercial zone. SD 62 officials want two new high schools to allow grades to be reconfigured.
Hobbs said the new high schools would create space in elementary and middle school classrooms, saving the ministry future funding pressures for more elementary space.
A recent consultant report estimates the school district will grow to about 12,500 students from 8,500 over the next 15 years, necessitating a range of new schools.
If Belmont isn’t replaced soon, Hobbs added, the back field will start sprouting portable classrooms.
“If they went forward with our plan, (the Ministry) would have to put out about $40 million to fund a $80 million project,” Hobbs said. “If we don’t get the new high schools, I don’t know where we will put the kids.”
At one point, the school district ballparked the new high schools project at more than $90 million, although now it estimates $80 million would likely do the trick. Belmont secondary itself is in line for seismic upgrading and major repairs to its roof.
School officials estimate those projects would sum to about $40 million.
“Does it make sense to retrofit this high school for earthquake preparedness? Absolutely not,” said Colwood Mayor Dave Saunders. “It makes sense to put good money into a brand new school rather than good money into bad infrastructure.
“It’s the best bang for the buck here. It’s a two for one deal. It makes no sense to go back to a one-school plan. This school is bursting at seams.”
Langford Mayor Stew Young said the possibly of one new school is better than none, but agreed that down-shifting to a one-school plan throws a difficult wrench into planning for future growth.
Talks with B.C. Liberal leadership candidates has been fruitful — the contenders have given the business plan the thumbs-up, Young said, and recognize the West Shore is an area of rapid growth.
“The talk of looking at building one school is better than what we’ve heard for the past 19 years, where it’s been none,” Young said. “No other municipality in B.C. will have a $25 million investment toward two new school sites. I think common sense will prevail in the end.”