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New Westminster schools projects finally approved

New Westminster school board chair James Janzen is excited that construction of a new elementary school at the old St. Mary
New Westminster school board chair James Janzen is excited that construction of a new elementary school at the old St. Mary's Hospital site and a new middle school at Robson elementary will soon be able to proceed after the B.C. government approved funding for the projects.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

As James Janzen sat down beside Education Minister George Abbott in Victoria to sign an agreement for construction of two new schools in New Westminster he got a little nervous.

Getting to this stage was more than a decade in the making. The schools project has had many incarnations, none of which have evolved from concept to actual bricks and mortar. So Janzen could be forgiven for being a bit anxious that nothing would go wrong when the deal was done. He couldn’t help but look over at Abbott just to make sure his pen wasn’t going to run out of ink, or his for that matter.

“I would have to say there were times I wondered if this day would ever come and it has,” said Janzen, New Westminster school board chair. “A lot of people have been waiting. This is the first step in getting the high school replacement. Getting these two built will lead to the high school being replaced.”

Abbott and Janzen signed agreements for the province to provide more than $30 million for a new elementary school on the former St. Mary’s Hospital site on Royal Avenue, and a middle school at the current John Robson elementary on Eighth Street.

The St. Mary’s school will have a construction budget of $13.5 million. That’s on top of the $8.5 million the province spent in 2010 to purchase the property. Its 23 classrooms will have room for 650 students from kindergarten to Grade 5. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall and it is expected to be open in early 2014.

It will cost $17.6 million to build 20 classrooms for 500 students in grades 6 to 8 for the new West Side middle school. Construction is not expected to begin until the 2013-14 school year. That’s when St. Mary’s should be completed so Robson’s current students can be redistributed. The middle school is projected to open in fall 2015.

The ministry said providing additional Grade 8 space will take some enrolment pressure off of New Westminster secondary, which is expected to eventually be replaced.

“We’re delighted to have the agreements in place. This has been a trio of projects with many complexities and twists and turns along the road,” said Abbott in an interview with the NewsLeader. “It has been without a doubt the most complex of projects we’ve ever seen here.

“There’s been more than a few frustrations with issues in and around education, and this is certainly one of them, but I never had a sense at any point that both the school district and the ministry wasn’t working together in good faith to get these project agreements in place. It was just that there were an inordinate number of complexities particularly with the high school site.”

Talk of replacing New Westminster secondary started around the turn of the century. Nine years ago, a similar agreement was announced that would have provided $26 million for a new NWSS and up to $8 million for a new middle school to be built next to it.

But many complications cropped up, not the least of which was the discovery an old cemetery was buried beneath much of the property. Other solutions were bandied about for years before it was decided to purchase the former St. Mary’s Hospital site.

In addition, land swaps with the city needed to be negotiated and other problems had to be solved before the district could take a plan to the province for final approval, which it did in December.

“When we actually got all the paperwork into the ministry we wanted to make sure it was right and they weren’t coming back with questions, and they didn’t,” said Janzen. “I’m sure it’s been frustrating for the public, but you have to persevere and work through everything. Whatever it takes to get things done you do it. You can’t give up, you can’t surrender.”

Trustee Casey Cook was one of those who first proposed the district look at private properties other than what was on the table during the election campaign of 2008.

“Today’s a big day and it’s long overdue,” said Cook on Tuesday. “Today is a big day for the children of New Westminster. We’re going to hit the ground running. Our staff has done a lot of work for the preparatory process and they’ll be doing that as soon as possible.

“It’s part of a progression. The middle school needs to happen first so we can get the middle school students from the west side currently going to the high school going to the middle school.”

Although the district was celebrating the news this week there is still a lot to be done to resolve many issues for the NWSS site, including dealing with the cemetery land and incorporating a new Massey Theatre.

The next stage for St. Mary’s and the middle school involves the construction community submitting design and build bids for the projects.

Abbott believes testing work undertaken by the school district and recent discussions will lead to resolving many of those issues.

“That being said, this has been a site that until we get into the excavation [it’s hard to know when an agreement to rebuild NWSS will happen],” admitted Abbott.

Janzen and vice chair Michael Ewen both said it was “classy” of Abbott to invite New Westminster NDP MLA Dawn Black to participate in the signing. Most announcements or ceremonies do not include opposition MLAs.

In return, Abbott said it was “a classy move” on their part to recognize the invitation.

“I’ve met with her on the projects, and she has been constructive, thoughtful, and diplomatic in advocating for the schools and I wanted to recognize that,” Abbott said.

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