Back in June, the Province announced the most expensive capital school project in our province’s history and we all cheered. Finally, New Westminster Secondary School had been approved for rebuilding with a price tag of $106.5 million. At a media event, amidst hooting and hollering, various dignitaries spoke passionately about the work that went into where we were that day, and the collaboration, perseverance, and compromises that were required. I cannot say this enough: kudos to everyone who worked so hard on this, especially parents who volunteered their time, dedication, and brain space. Shovels aren’t yet in the ground—we are a ways away from that— but community consultation on the project launched this week, and the district has created a page on their website just to keep track of where things are at, because everyone cares what’s going on at the high school.
But what’s going on with the other New Westminster schools?
In summer of 2015 and 2016, smaller maintenance and seismic mitigation projects were approved. Both Lord Kelvin and Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary schools received complete lighting upgrades in 2015. Kelvin is also getting a new $350,000 roof before next spring. FW Howay has its upgrades (mechanical and electrical systems replacement, and wall and roof retrofit) recently approved for $4 million, and is now under construction. Now, only two elementary schools await their seismic mitigation projects: Lord Tweedsmuir and Richard McBride. Tweeds is listed as low risk, whereas McBride is listed as high risk (see page 22 of this 2014 report. Progress reports released by the Provincial Government in 2015 and 2016 no longer include the level of identified risk).
Both schools have had project requests submitted, and there is little to do now except wait.
When that will happen is a question mark, even to the Minister of Education. In a conversation online, Minister of Education Mike Bernier noted the exact timeline is unknown, though it is likely to be toward the end of the school year, in May or June of 2017. He says it depends on what other requests came in from other school districts as while there is approximately $450 million budgeted for capital and seismic projects across the province every year, it is doled out based on a priority order. Minister Bernier also noted that, “We are committed to getting them all done and are working with every district.”
My son attends McBride. It’s a great school with great staff. I believe that he will have finished elementary school and be attending the relatively newly-built middle school well before ground is broken on a replacement Richard McBride Elementary. And therein is a problem: the parents and families who advocate for the safety of their children’s schools stop advocating for that particular school when their kids move to the next level.
We don’t stop altogether: we take up a new sword, we find a new fight. Whether it’s a playground, fresh technology, a building not in danger of collapse in the event of an earthquake, or not full of asbestos and rats, families will advocate for their kids, be the squeaky wheels, and shout from whatever rooftops we have to, but we shift focus as our children age to where are children actually are. There are only so many hours in the day in our busy lives; we must pick the battles.
But here’s the thing. Everyone should care. This should be everyone’s battle.
Public schools are a community asset.
We need to shift the way we think about schools and what their role is. While my kid goes to school at a crowded, crumbling school with rats, plumbing issues, and high seismic risk, I have also voted, had soccer practise, volunteered, attended an open house, played at the playground, and watched adults participate in boot camp—and that’s just me. Public schools are not just where kids go to learn the prescribed curriculum, they are also places where the community assembles. They are part of city building and place making.
A few weeks back Stephen Quinn had a really great guest on On the Coast, Jennifer Stewart from the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education. Her group is calling on the federal government to look at the slow progress on the seismic mitigation program and contribute federal infrastructure dollars so that we can get this done sooner rather than later. She points out that billions of dollars have been spent or are in the works in the time the seismic upgrading has been on the books—twelve years—such as the Olympics, a new Convention Centre, BC Place’s roof, and the Massey Tunnel replacement. Here’s the audio from her very compelling piece – I really encourage you take a listen, and even more importantly, I encourage you to get involved and care what is happening in our public schools, no matter what your personal circumstances are.
A deeper discussion on McBride’s condition, if you’re interested:
Richard McBride Elementary was deemed to be at the highest seismic risk level H1 in 2013 by John A. Wallace Engineering Ltd. The gymnasium was deemed H2, a slightly lower risk. (The definitions of an H1, H2, etc building are on the Ministry’s website, or in that little screen cap to the right.) Basically, we are screwed if there is an earthquake.
Both Jonina Campbell and Kelly Slade-Kerr confirmed with me that documents for McBride have been submitted, and that those documents request a replacement. Documents were previously submitted in 2014 but that the request wasn’t approved then. It wasn’t exactly declined, but it didn’t get the approval it needed to move forward.
The full, lengthy engineering report that made that designation is here if you’re into engineering reports, but the gist of it says retrofits are essential for seismic safety, and that there are many construction problems to be overcome or were done in a old-fashioned way, such as balloon framing. At the time, in 2013, the engineer estimated retrofit costs at $3,841,800 ($1,188/m2) for Block 1 (the two storey classrooms) plus another $859,749 for Block 2 (the gym, which is lower risk at H2 level) for a total of $4,701,549. Not exactly chump change. That price tag makes replacement a smarter choice when you consider other factors. For one. the school is on a huge property with room to construct a whole other school at the back without disturbing the front.
There’s also asbestos. This 2012 report on asbestos abatement mentions that while asbestos abatement has occurred on the second and third floors, some asbestos remains, mostly on the first floor, in stairwells, and in crawlspaces and the report says that provided the school continues to be maintained and the asbestos-containing materials are undisturbed, the level of risk is minimal.
Woo hoo! No earthquakes so far this year!
The building is neat to look at with its hilarious castle-like crenellated turrets and imposing, prominent placement on the hill. In my opinion, it has no historical significance other than being old and for many people, a nostalgic trigger of longing for days gone by. It’s not the original school; that one burnt down in 1929. It’s been added onto over the years, with a few different construction styles and methods. The brick façade is gone. The electrical system cannot support the devices the new curriculum encourages the use of, such as Smart Boards and Chromebooks. Teachers use their own laptops and their own phones to communicate with families.
The bathrooms are outdated and present challenges. There’s been a number of times when bathrooms are out of soap, have water all over counters, and toilets are clogged and because there are no longer daytime custodians, bathrooms get closed until someone can be dispatched to clean it or the night shift arrives, and that’s only if the child knows what to do or who to tell in the event of a clog. Kids are horrible at flushing—we all know that—and there are no automatic flushing sensors in the bathrooms at McBride.
To be clear, I give a lot of credit to the staff for doing whatever they can to make it clean and bright for the kids. Teachers spend way too many of their own dollars to decorate and outfit their classrooms into cheery hubs of activity, and the 50+ year old floors gleam. The gym floor is in incredible shape. There’s a stage, with beautiful velvet curtains, that gets used regularly. There is a music room, with maintained instruments. There is more than one playground area. There’s a running club, a knitting club, and a choir. The PAC (disclaimer – I’m on it if you didn’t already guess) works pretty tirelessly to fundraise for various things—field trips, guest performers, parent education nights, and new equipment. The school is vibrant, inclusive, and the kids are clearly in a caring environment. I hope one day in the near future, the physical environment matches the mental and emotional environment.