COLUMN: Trustees travel down a familiar road

Reporter's Viewpoint

Those who follow what Nanaimo school trustees are up to might have had a sense of déjà vu at the end of this school year.

That’s because discussions of moving forward with seismic upgrades to Wellington Secondary School came up again.

This has been an ongoing issue in the district since 2004 when the province first agreed to fund the upgrades.

In the years since, as elections occurred and the makeup of the school board changed, the big debate about what to do with the district’s aging facilities and now excess space has raged on.

The Wellington project, tied to the previous facilities plan – which trustees voted down in 2009 – got lost in the politics.

Now the district has a new facilities plan and the province suggested the district resubmit its Wellington request to move to the final stage of approval.

The Education Ministry is treating Wellington as a standalone project, separate from the new plan because it was approved well before it was developed.

It won’t take much work from staff – all the planning was done twice in the past and staff just have to plug in updated cost estimates.

Since then, the cost of labour and materials has gone up quite a bit.

The initial cost estimate was $5 million, which increased to $33 million when the plan was to expand the school as well as renovate it. I would think the new estimate would fall somewhere in between.

Perhaps at long last this project will finally go through. While it’s great that Wellington might get its renovations, trustees face a bigger problem – every other aging facility in the district needs work of some kind.

Another déjà vu moment at the same board meeting: when a Hammond Bay Elementary School parent came in to talk to trustees for the fourth time in five years about gym upgrades. The school only has a half-size gym, but about twice the population the facility was intended for.

Trustees have got some major work to do this fall if they want to get other aspects of the plan, including replacement of Woodlands Secondary School and renovations to Nanaimo District Secondary School, funded.

And I don’t think they can afford to move slowly. There are a lot of students packed like sardines in portables or in old schools that need a lot of maintenance work that the district can’t afford.

The problem is the facilities plan has not addressed the district’s overcapacity.

One solution in the plan is to review the district’s French immersion program to see if the overflowing population in schools offering French can be shifted to reduce the number of empty classrooms in some schools and portables at others. This review will be finished in the fall.

The plan also calls for allowing community groups to use excess space, but if trustees want to move in this direction, they need to start securing these partnerships immediately and bring back concrete plans to the province.

I question the feasibility of this strategy.

As people might recall when trustees wanted to make a community centre out of the closed Mount Benson school site, there was plenty of interest from community groups, but no one wanted to pay for space.

Hopefully some of these solutions will come to fruition in the fall and the province will approve them.

Until then, I don’t think the district will get any more money and students, parents, teachers and support staff will continue waiting for an improvement to situations in many schools.