Wait continues for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on schools

Money for new West Shore high schools isn’t in the “status quo” provincial budget tabled Tuesday, but officials are pressing for funding to be approved this year.

Leading into budget debates, Maurine Karagianis, MLA for Esquimalt-Royal Roads and John Horgan, MLA for Juan de Fuca met with Ministry of Education staffers two weeks ago to re-state the case for the long-awaited $97 million project.

A cornerstone of the plan involves selling the current Belmont secondary property on Jacklin Road to chip in a significant portion of the capital costs. The Sooke School District wants to build a new Belmont at the old Glen Lake elementary site and in Royal Bay in Colwood.

Last year Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid told a legislative finance committee the Belmont replacement plan would be considered in the 2011-12 ministry budget.

“Ministry staff says it’s a great business case, they say it is a high priority,” Karagianis said. “But we probably won’t know what is coming on government spending until July.”

Horgan said pokerfaced Ministry of Education officials gave nothing away, other than noting the business plan is sound and innovative.

New high schools will allow the district to re-configure its grades, freeing space in elementary schools for full-day kindergarten and expected increases in elementary-aged kids.

“Those (elementary) kids will need somewhere to move to,” Horgan said Wednesday. “We need new high schools soon, or we will be in crisis.”

Sooke School District officials were scheduled to meet with ministry of education officials on Thursday to press their case for funding.

Assistant superintendent Ron Warder said the school district has done all it can with the ministry — the decision to commit funding just needs to be made.

“The government just needs to come up with the money,” Warder said. “It could be this year, it could be next year. We wait with eager anticipation.”

With 19 new classrooms being built onto elementary schools and eight modular classrooms on route, the district has now has some wiggle room for student space, although not for long.

“We’ve got a bit of time we didn’t have before,” Warder said. “But our long-term enrolment projections are staggering. We are already 200 students ahead of what was predicted for this year.”

Budget reaction

A provincial budget with new capital projects is expected some weeks or months after a new B.C. Liberal leaders is selected on Feb. 26.

Horgan suspects the new premier might delay tabling a budget until the NDP selects its new leader on April 17.

“The government needs to demonstrate it’s not drifting for a full year,” Horgan said. “We need a centre of government. If we delay (a budget) into April or May, that would be appalling and evident the Liberals have lost their way and are not helping anybody.

“We’ve got a budget about nothing other than $900 million in funding for the new leader.”

Karagianis called the current budget “lackluster” and says it will leave West Shore social program providers scrambling for cash.

“A lot of family programs will be reduced or will disappear,” Karagianis said. “It’s a great disappointment to see programs at risk.”

Finance Minister Colin Hansen presented a budget he called “status quo” and that he described as leaving a recovering B.C. economy for the next premier.

It will fall to him or her to decide if carbon taxes will continue to rise and small business taxes will be eliminated next year as planned. But the most significant decision of 2011 will be made by voters directly — to keep the harmonized sales tax or go back to the old provincial sales tax.

In his budget speech to the legislature Tuesday, Hansen warned of “major implications” that go beyond the return of $1.6 billion in transition funds to the federal government.

“The fact is, no province has ever backed out of the HST after implementation,” Hansen said. “Being first would put us into uncharted waters.”

Horgan said the Liberals have no contingency plan in place should people vote to repeal on the HST.

“I think (the Liberals) will use that as a scare tactic in the campaign leading to the referendum,” Horgan said. “I think it will be a “no” vote (on keeping the HST). I’m confident people will say no.”

—with files from Tom Fletcher

editor@goldstreamgazette.com

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