School trustees pull out all the stops to get their way with Connaught
by Gregory Beatty
The scenario’s played out many times before. The Regina Public School Board, desperate to keep up with demographic trends in a city with ever-expanding geographic boundaries, closes a school in one neighbourhood to free up resources for schools in other neighbourhoods with growing school-age populations.
Usually, the neighbourhood takes it pretty hard. Schools are an important resource, after all. That extends beyond the education services they provide, too, as they typically serve as landmarks and community gathering places.
For over a year now, the Cathedral neighbourhood has been fighting to save historic École Connaught community school. Unlike many closures, this isn’t being driven by declining enrollment. With a day-care, pre-school, and English and French Immersion K-8, Connaught has over 300 students and is well used.
The problem instead is that, having received little or no maintenance for decades, the 102-year old school is in structural decline and the board has received engineering reports warning that student and staff safety may be at risk.
The organization Save Our Connaught and other supporters don’t dispute the school’s in bad shape. But they argue more testing needs to be done to determine the true structural condition. They’ve even assembled a volunteer team of conservation specialists with ground-penetrating radar and other sophisticated equipment to do the tests.
All they need is access to the school for six hours, but the board won’t let them in.
When the RPSB met on March 25 to decide Connaught’s fate, it had more bad news to report: fearing a catastrophe should some part of the building fail, its insurer had refused to insure the school beyond June.
“The board’s been talking for the last month about how we got off on the wrong foot and there should be more communication,” says SOC’s Rene Dumont. “In light of that, they invited us at 4:45 p.m. to have a brief meeting where they dropped the bombshell about the insurance. In our conversation, they were very abrupt and at one point let it slip that they’d known about the insurance for two weeks.
“It was a curveball that was thrown at us at the very last minute, but that’s the nature of this board.”
Previously, the board’s engineer had indicated that with $20,000 in repairs, Connaught could remain open in 2014-15. With the public system strapped for space, and no solid plan for accommodating the Connaught students outside of bussing them to schools in other neighbourhoods, that was the community’s preferred option.
In a matter of weeks $9000 was raised to contribute to repairs. Kate Smart, a mother of two pre-schoolers, presented the board with a ceremonial cheque on March 25. By that point, though, the estimate to keep Connaught open had ballooned to $67,000 including $25,000 for unexpected contingencies.
“I understand the board and administration’s chief concern is student safety,” Smart said. “However, it must be stated that there is nobody who cares more about these children than their parents. In asking for another year of operation, parents are not playing fast and loose with their children’s lives. We’re asking the board to pursue the option an engineer put on the table to keep the school open.”
Instead, the board voted 5-2 to close Connaught in June. The decision was met with cries of outrage and despair, and created further doubt in the minds of supporters about the board’s motives.
“We asked the board, ‘If repairs are done to the building as specified in the engineer’s report and the engineer gives their approval, why wouldn’t the insurance company agree?’” Dumont says. “If you have a car that has a roadside inspection and they say your brakes need work — if you get the work done, it’s insurable again. How can they say the building’s uninsurable?”
After considering several options for relocating the students, the administration, motivated by the expressed desire of Cathedral residents to keep the student population together, opted to bus everyone to Wascana school at Pasqua & 4th Ave. Wascana will become vacant when kids from there move to the new Seven Stones facility that’s replacing Herchmer school, which was demolished in 2008.
The board will spend $1.14 million to upgrade Wascana, and bussing costs are estimated at $140,000-$400,000 a year. Cathedral has been promised a new school. In the March 19 budget, the Ministry of Education allocated $4.1 million to begin planning to rebuild Connaught and three other Saskatchewan schools, including Sacred Heart in north-central Regina. But no firm timeline exists for a new school to open.
“What if funding doesn’t materialize?” Smart asked during her presentation. “I understand Athabasca proceeded to the design [phase] for a new build, but received a program closure instead. What if something changes with Connaught, like enrollment, and funding for a new build doesn’t materialize?
“Currently, we only have planning money and the suggestion of funds in the future. It’s better than no school in the neighbourhood, sure, but for any student currently at Connaught, it tells them they’ll have years in limbo.”
Another Cathedral resident who spoke on March 25 was Susanne Arendt. As a doctor, she said she was never shy about ordering additional tests if they were warranted or seeking a second opinion.
“There’s no harm done with extra knowledge, just without it,” says Arendt. “We need a second opinion. We feel we deserve a second opinion. And that should be a specialist’s opinion.”
Dumont notes that the province recently changed funding criteria to require third-party evaluation of a school’s condition before it can be prioritized for repairs or replacement.
“If the building’s as bad as they say, why not let us have access? It’s not going to cost them any money. Then at least the community would be more at ease, because if it turned out to be as the board says, we’d get behind the project wholeheartedly.”
To understand Cathedral’s attachment to Connaught, you have to understand Cathedral as a neighbourhood. Unlike modern subdivisions, it’s a very walkable place. It’s one of the oldest areas of the city, too, and residents take great pride in the unique character of their homes and public buildings.
Cathedral probably has a reputation among some Reginans for being hoity-toity, with its annual arts festival and other celebrations of community spirit, but it has the highest percentage of social housing in the city. You don’t notice it because Cathedral functions as an integrated neighbourhood. And École Connaught is an important part of that.
“Moose Jaw refurbishes all its old buildings,” says Dumont. “And it’s beautiful to go there and tour the schools. You can have a school like Connaught that’s Wi-Fi accessible and the heating system and electrical are top-notch. They can do it within budget; why can’t we?”
In 2002, nearby Davin school faced an equally dire fate with a sagging front half and collapsing roof. Like Connaught, the neighbourhood rallied, and the school board worked with them and the province to keep Davin open.
“They underpinned Davin for $1.4 million,” says Dumont. “Why are they quoting us $11 million to redo the foundation at Connaught? They also put in a 35-per cent contingency fee. Their $23 million renovation plan involved gutting the inside. We don’t want that. But they never approached us to have any input.”
After the board voted to close Connaught, I contacted Regina Public Schools to ask what process it will use to engage Cathedral residents when planning for a replacement school begins, but they were busy fine-tuning their bussing plans and no one got back to me by press time.
It will be a tough sell, Dumont thinks.
“I was chair of the community council for 10 years and not once did they indicate there was any structural damage. It was just all of a sudden, 18 months ago: ‘Oh, by the way. Your school needs to be torn down.’ And they’ve sidestepped everything we’ve had to say. The community feels raped; that’s the only way I can put it.”
Save Our Connaught has organized a community meeting for April 13 at the Neil Balkwill Centre. For more information visit saveourconnaught.ca.