Regina’s school board votes to demolish 100 years of heritage

by Paul Dechene

Pullquote: “I’m not unwilling to make difficult decisions but I do refuse to do another level of government’s bidding and make it look like the board has a real choice in the matter.”

I found myself in an awkward position recently when my daughter wanted to know why I was going to the Feb. 26 Regina Public School Board meeting. “He’s going to… um… help save your school,” my wife offered.

My daughter’s in grade one at Connaught Community School in Cathedral and she’d heard that some people were thinking about tearing her school down. The news left her understandably heartbroken. So we left out the detail where I wasn’t actually going to try to save anything but rather my plan was to sit impotently in the gallery and report on the people who are.

What those concerned citizens were up against was a recommendation from school board to request funding from the provincial government to rebuild Connaught school as opposed to renovating it.

And while the recommendation does suggest incorporating heritage features from the old school into the new one, where exactly the new school will be located is up in the air. The board says only that the new school should be built “on either the current school site or, dependent upon current site limitations, on an alternate suitable site located in the École Connaught Community School attendance area.”

The actual decision on all of this, though, will be made by the provincial ministry of education as they’re the ones with all the cash.

Members of Real Renewal, a group that formed in 2007 to fight school closures, attended the meeting to speak against the recommendation to demolish Connaught and to request that the report—released a mere four days earlier — be tabled so that the community would have more time to put together a response.

Journalism professor Trish Elliott, who was speaking for Real Renewal, raised concerns that preliminary assessments of the building’s condition may be incomplete and a more thorough engineering study might reveal that a renovation is economically viable. And she argued that the community could help raise funds for a second opinion on the current building’s status.

Director of Education Julie MacRae pointed out in a prepared statement that a renovation, beyond being costly, would require relocating students for up to three years, and if the board found a way to do that then the province may decide that a school in Cathedral was unnecessary as those students can be accommodated elsewhere. And, she argued, the province may even take a dim view of funding a new school for a community that claims not to want a new school.

“[The] project is in effect being compromised by the concerns of the very community that the board is trying to serve,” she said.

In her address to the gallery, Carla Beck, the trustee from Subdivision 5 said that the board had had a chance to tour the school and examine the structural problems and she found that the condition of the building was worse than she expected. As such, she said, a renovation might not even be possible.

Despite this, she said she’d vote against the recommendation because she had concerns with the consultation process and she felt it would be worthwhile to get a second opinion on the building’s state from a contractor who, unlike the one the board hired, would be precluded from bidding on the design and construction of the new school.

But she also noted that even a favourable second opinion and community support would not be enough to save the school.

“We have been told and have seen the meeting notes indicating that the ministry [of education] will not provide any funds for a more expensive renovation even if the board or the community can come up with the difference between a new build and renovation,” said Beck. “I’m not unwilling to make difficult decisions but I do refuse to do another level of government’s bidding and make it look like the board has a real choice in the matter. I refuse.

“This process has highlighted the problem with the funding model. There is a strong bias in the current capital funding formula away from renovation. And there is no dollar value assigned to heritage retention. I feel that it’s not efficient fiscal or environmental policy in the long term. Our dilemma also speaks to the difficulty associated with the inability of boards to set their own mill rates.”

When it came up for a vote, only Beck and Kathleen O’Reilly, the trustee for Subdivision 7, voted against the motion. Connaught’s fate is now in the hands of the province.

After the meeting, Real Renewal and supporters of Connaught school gathered outside the board chamber and discussed their plan of action. They agreed that they had to continue their fight to preserve Connaught. Looks like the battle isn’t over.

Which is funny because before the meeting, back when my wife was lying to my daughter that I was going to save her school, I thought to myself, “Oh crap. Am I living in one of those uplifting films from the ’80s where a plucky gang of misfits band together to save some beloved building from the wrecking ball by believing in the power of hope?”

Well, maybe I am.

But the thing is, confession time, I honestly don’t think there’s much hope of saving Connaught. There are too many forces arrayed against it.

So, there’ll be no conveniently timed dance competition where kids from Connaught square off against a team from St Peckinsniff’s Academy For Gifted Rich Children, a $2 million cash prize up for grabs. There will be no climactic dance-off that ends with an inspiring performance by Connaught that brings a tear to the eye of the hard-hearted education minister. There will be no montage as the credits roll where the class clown does a comic pratfall splattering mud all over the faces of the moustachioed real-estate developers who want to turn the school land into condos or a chemical plant.

No. I fear the moustache-twirling developers and the stone-hearted education minister are going to win the day.

As usual.