Wanted: Second Opinions

Why Regina’s threatened heritage school might still be salvageable

by Gregory Beatty

nw0306

When Regina Public School’s director of education Julie MacRae met with parents and Cathedral community members on Feb. 25 to discuss the future of 102-year-old Connaught School, she had sobering news.

“I’ve recommended to the board that students be relocated at the end of the school year. My rationale is simple. The evidence suggests the building’s condition is deteriorating faster than expected and I’m not prepared to risk student injury or something worse.

“This is not the kind of report that any public official wants to receive, nor is it the type of report that any parent or community member wants to hear about for a building that houses more than 300 children,” she added. “What it does create, however, is a need for us to make some decisions and the action we take must have the safety of students and our employees as its primary concern.”

MacRae based her case on a series of engineering reports done over the last two years that indicate the foundation is becoming unstable and that walls, floors and staircases are beginning to shift and separate.

Even Rene Dumont, head of Save Our Connaught, which wants to see the heritage school preserved and rehabilitated, admits it’s not in good shape.

“We know the building needs work. We’ve been saying that for years. The electrical and boiler need to be updated and we need a new gym.”

Isn’t it nice when everybody is in agreement?

Alas, the Connaught situation isn’t that simple.

MacRae prefaced her remarks to the capacity crowd who gathered on the bitterly cold Tuesday night by saying, “our time here will be brief. We each have a choice about how to use it. We can spend our time assigning blame, creating conflict and confusion, or we can spend it focusing on the needs of our students, your families, and trying to find a solution to keep our children safe and secure.”

This article is going to be brief, too. But it truly must be pointed out that it never had to come to this. Yes, Connaught is 102 years old and in rough shape. But it’s had zero money put into structural and mechanical upgrades for 40 years. It’s a familiar story in Regina, of course, as heritage properties are regularly sabotaged: they’re left to languish and are ultimately deemed uninhabitable. It’s disgusting.

An added dimension in this instance is the Public School Board has a long history of taking a “whack-a-mole” approach to supplying education services in Regina. Part (not all) of that’s been forced on the board by the ongoing expansion of the city’s boundaries and the low density of most new developments, which makes it extremely challenging to provide those services.

Neighbourhoods, like people, go through life cycles. Kids are born, enter the school system and progress through to graduation, then enrollment plummets and the school ends up on the chopping block, even though as the parents age and begin moving out of the neighbourhood, younger couples move in and the cycle repeats. That leaves the board in the unenviable position of always playing catch-up to demographic trends. So at the same time as it’s whacking schools in some neighbourhoods, new schools are popping up in other areas.

Student population isn’t a problem at Connaught. With a regular English program, French Immersion, pre-K and a daycare, Connaught has around 350 kids. Instead, it’s on the chopping block because it’s been deemed structurally unsafe.

Is it unsafe?

June Botkin is a member of the group Save Our Connaught. She’s a specialist in heritage architecture who’s studied in Italy and recently worked on the rehabilitation of the Saskatchewan Legislature, and she has concerns about that assessment.

“There’s contradictory information coming from the engineer’s report. They say the floors are not reinforced. But according to the architect’s drawings and writings, everything’s been reinforced.”

Thus far, she adds, engineers have tended to rely on cursory visual inspections that paint an ominous picture of the building’s condition but don’t necessarily reflect its true state. During her presentation, for instance, MacRae highlighted an incident before Christmas where a wall in classroom 12 buckled, forcing the relocation of students to the basement until repairs were made.

“They didn’t tell the parents that the engineer put a massive structural steel non-adjustable frame under the floor there,” says Botkin. “It was pushing up the floor and crushed the wall. So the damage was caused due to the board’s intervention.”

Other mistakes have been made over the years, says Botkin, and that’s contributed greatly to Connaught’s deterioration. She argues that further testing is needed to determine if the school is structurally unsafe.

“We could use ground-penetrating radar to determine the layout of the steel inside the concrete and what the structural strength is. You could also survey the building and set up datum points in different rooms and hallways so you can determine how much sway or deflection there is. That way, you can determine if it’s significant.”

Through her connections in the construction industry, Botkin has even assembled a volunteer team to do a study.

“What it boils down to is we need to get into the building for six hours,” says Dumont. “If the experts we have look at the building and say, ‘yeah, they’re right. The building needs too much work’ –  okay, fine. Let’s get on with it. But they won’t let us have access. What could it possibly hurt? It would either prove their case, or give us the information we need to fix the building.”

When Dumont and his group met with the Ministry of Education in December, he says, they thought it was a “perfectly logical” idea. But in the timeline MacRae laid out, the school would close at the end of June.

Although it could be kept open for another year, the engineer concluded, by spending $20,000 to fix the front steps and brace the southeast corner wall.

Considering where the board’s at in its plans for relocating the Connaught students in an already crowded system, that’s probably the best course of action. As it stands now, parents will have the option of bussing their children to different schools throughout the city depending on their age and what program they’re in. One idea that’s even been floated is to bus the entire school to Wascana, when students there relocate in September to the new Seven Stones facility in north-central Regina, which replaces Herchmer school.

(See what I mean by whack-a-mole?)

At minimum, it’s going to cost $500,000 to bus the kids in the 2014-15 school year. Meanwhile, the board’s put in a request to the province for a new school in the Cathedral area. It will get further news on that front when the budget drops March 19. And a decision on Connaught’s fate could be made as early as March 25.

Despite the tight timeline, Dumont remains optimistic.

“Davin School was in the same position in 2008, but because of co-operation that happened between the community and the board then, it’s still open. Until they bring in the bulldozers or sell the school, there’s always the possibility of the board saying ‘okay, we made a couple of bad decisions. Let’s start over.’ It’s not too late.”

2014-03-06

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