Jesse Hampton with Knappett Construction works on framing the six-classroom addition at Happy Valley elementary. A forecasting report says the Sooke School District will need to make room for thousands of more kids in the next 15 years.

West Shore, school district set for strong growth

It’s information that will surprise few – residential construction on the West Shore is forecasted to continue booming, on the order of 9,000 housing units over the next 15 years.

For the Sooke School District, projected growth means it will need at least four more schools serving thousands of more kids, in a region with an ever shrinking land-base.

Bill Wood, with Matrix Planning, unveiled a draft version of his long-range planning report for Sooke School District trustees last week. His message to the board: start the process to locate and buy land now.

“The bottom line is you’ve got a lot of growth coming,” Wood said to trustees. “There is a lot of capacity in the school district. There’s a lot of pressure for growth.”

Wood’s report synthesizes demographic trends and development data culled from Statistics B.C. and West Shore municipal governments, among other sources. It offers a glimpse of how residential growth is expected to evolve over the next decade.

The report estimates the school district will experience a 55 per cent increase in students – to about 12,500 from 8,500 now – demanding a series of new or rebuilt secondary, middle and elementary schools.

“For the first time in a long time we’re seeing an uptick in the expected birthrate,” Wood said. “It looks like the birthrate has hit bottom and is coming up.”

It’s a significant shift from Wood’s report in 2007, which recommended closing a handful of elementary schools in the face of haphazard development around Colwood and Langford. Glen Lake elementary was closed in June 2008, based on falling enrollment and seismic stability.

The earlier report also downplayed the impact of Westhills development on Langford. In 2007 Westhills was expected to generate about 800 homes over 15 years – that’s since been revised to more than 1,800 homes with considerably more children.

In the past two years that project has completed a number of neighbourhoods in what is still the early days of the 6,000-home, 209-hectare project.

“The area is going to have a lot of kids. (Westhills) is the single most important change from three years ago,” Wood said.

Across the West Shore and Sooke, the report predicts the growth of about 12,000 more residential units over 15 years, the same as predicted in 2007, although in slightly different places. Sooke will see hundreds of more homes than first predicted, while Colwood’s growth is revised downward by 800 homes. Langford is steady with about 6,000 more units. Wood notes the report doesn’t account for Royal Bay in Colwood or Skirt Mountain in Langford, both huge potential developments that have yet to see signs of life.

“There is a lot of change from year to year. Our housing estimates in some cases may be high,” Wood said. “In some cases with Skirt Mountain and Royal Bay, we may be undercounting.

“Predicting 12,000 (units) makes sense when you get 90 per cent of development in Greater Victoria happening here,” Wood noted.

Another key change is the start of full-day kindergarten across the district, which Wood said has effectively ended the need for school closures. “Now two things are happening. Growth in elementary schools is stronger and full-day kindergarten has effectively added half a grade (to each school),” he said. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

SD 62 superintendent Jim Cambridge said the report reenforces the No. 1 priority of the district – building a new secondary schools near Westhills and in Royal Bay. He’s hopeful the Ministry of Education will announce funding for the $90-million project this year.

Buying land for new schools is a challenge that can span years and decades, making the report a good head’s up on work that needs to start now, Cambridge said.

Wood calls it an “impossible task.”

“You want schools where they are needed, but you’ll always be behind,” he said. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.”

The full long-term planning report will be posted on the SD 62 website, sd62.bc.ca in a few weeks. The district plans to hold a public forum on future planning in the spring.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com

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