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NWSS 'wear and tear' worst in B.C.

NWSS principal Phil Cookson tells New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy and NDP education critic Rob Fleming about the issues the aging school presents during a tour Thursday. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
NWSS principal Phil Cookson tells New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy and NDP education critic Rob Fleming about the issues the aging school presents during a tour Thursday.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

NDP education critic Rob Fleming has seen a lot of schools across B.C.

But none quite like New Westminster secondary.

Fleming and local MLA Judy Darcy toured the aging school Thursday.

It's scheduled to be replaced but has yet to get final approval from the Ministry of Education.

What Fleming saw was paint peelings all over the place. Faded and pock-marked linoleum original to the school in the halls. Patches on floors, doors and more.

A roof that needs replacing.

Holes and exposed wiring everywhere.

District facility and operations manager Doug Templeton told them "all the systems in this building have failed or are in the process of failing." He added a seismic upgrade would be more expensive than building a new school.

"In spite of its deficiencies there is some great, great teaching going on here. But this is clearly a building that needs replacing," said Fleming after the tour conducted by principal Phil Cookson. "In all my travels I have not seen a school quite like this in terms of age and wear and tear."

District officials recently met with Education Minister Peter Fassbender to make a pitch for a new school. A replacement was approved in 2005 but abandoned because of complex and costly archeological and soil issues. The costs of dealing with them are beyond the capital funding the province normally provides for a school to house 1,900 students.

"The reality is every project has Exposed wiringvery site specific issues, whether they're archeological, or geotechnical. Various parts of this site have both," said Fleming. "Both of those things have to be managed and accommodated."

LEFT: If a replacement for NWSS was built it would not include exposed wiring and holes in the wall like the current building has.
Grant Granger/NewsLeader

He added the delays have "been going on for far too long." A replacement school is needed for the next 60 years to bring its students into the 21st century, he said.

Darcy has heard the grumblings from her constituents ever since she began campaigning more than a year ago.

"I don't understand what the delay is about. The case is clear," said Darcy. "It is an amazing centre of learning, but what kind of step forward we could take for those kids if we had a new space. The students deserve a better place to learn in."

Templeton said the 2005 plans were suspended by the ministry when bids came in $20 million over budget. That decision created new problems because the district had been proactive to make the site easier to build on, such as demolishing the district offices.

"They tore down the office so a new design would fit," said Templeton.

But with the project a no go, the district had to keep paying $700,000 a year to lease offices in Columbia Square.

Temporary facilities had to be built to keep programs running. The apprenticeship program is in a building cobbled out of two transport containers and a used canopy.

Inside, Cookson pointed out running a special needs programs is a challenge in a 60-year-old building not constructed with them in mind.

"The programming should be driving the building, not the other way around," said Cookson. "You need to have flexible space."

The area doesn't have running water and washrooms are a long walk away.

"Sometimes that's OK, but sometimes that's not because of the crowded building. Not having running water impedes their needs," said board chair Jonina Campbell, who accompanied Darcy and Fleming on the tour.

Cookson spent much of the tour praising the school's staff and programs in spite of the conditions.

"We're in the business of making things work. The staff don't complain. They gave that up years ago. They never talk about what a new school would look like. We just make the best of it," said Cookson.

LEFT: NWSS principal Phil Cookson tells school district board chair Jonina Campbell (far left), New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy and NDP education critic Rob Fleming (right) about how the school's carpenter apprenticeship program thrives despite having to operate out of a building built from two transport containers and a canopy.
Grant Granger/NewsLeader

When it was suggested that may be an argument against replacement Campbell said, "We can do even more and better with a new school."

Campbell believes Fassbender would have a similar reaction to Fleming if he accepted her invitation to tour NWSS.

"Anyone who takes this tour is going to be able to see these things," said Campbell.

Fassbender told the district he was going to consult with his capital projects funding staff before making a decision on whether to approve the extra costs New Westminster is looking for. Not getting the approval could mean mounting costs for a district already dealing with accumulated deficits of $5 million.

"To maintain the site would be more expensive the longer it goes on," said Templeton.

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