Council rejects its advisory committee’s advice on Connaught

by Gregory Beatty

Connaught School illustration by Dakota McFadzean

city-tagIt was a “Hail Mary”. And just like in most football games, it didn’t work. Oh… the ball got tipped up and fought over a bit. But it ended up falling harmlessly to the turf, and that was it. Game over. For École Connaught Community School, that is.

The Hail Mary came in the form of a June 9 recommendation from the Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee that Connaught be granted heritage status.

“The Save Our Connaught people put forward an application for heritage designation,” says Dave McLellan, who represents Heritage Regina on the committee. “The city reviewed it and recommended it be denied. Our committee voted against that. Then I put forward a motion that we recommend heritage designation. That passed [6-3].”

The Regina Public School Board, which has committed itself to demolishing the 102-year-old school and building a new school on the site, did not support the heritage designation. And one sticking point for naysayers on the heritage committee was concern about infringing on property owners’ rights.

“Some people who voted for the recommendation are sympathetic to that argument, but felt in this instance the property owners really were the public,” says McLellan.

Even in the case of private property, there’s precedent for the city granting heritage status without the owner’s consent — in the mid-1990s, the Masons building on 19 block Lorne was made part of Victoria Park Heritage Conservation District against members’ wishes.

And that’s as it should be. Yes, property rights are important. But in cities in particular, all the “properties” that exist combine to form neighbourhoods where people live, work, play and raise families. Thus, society as a whole has a vested interest in what happens to them — and a right to protect them.

For Cathedral residents, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Connaught as a western gateway to their community.

The city, meanwhile, is supposed to be supportive of heritage. That sentiment, says McLellan, is clearly expressed in the Official Community Plan.

“I find there’s a disconnect between the city’s thinking that the application should be denied, and what they say in the OCP about heritage properties and their value to communities. Heritage buildings, especially significant ones like schools, are of tremendous value and that’s articulated in the OCP.”

Of course, McLellan’s committee is an advisory body. It was city council that put the final nail in Connaught’s coffin at its June 23 meeting when it rejected the committee’s recommendation. Only Shawn Fraser (Ward 3) and Sharron Bryce (Ward 7) voted in favour.

The debate over Connaught has frayed nerves in Cathedral, Fraser admits. “Some people asked me not to support the heritage motion. They have kids, and want a new school while their kids are still of school age. It’s not that they’re against the heritage aspect, they just don’t want any hiccups.”

Fraser, though, is concerned about a worst case scenario developing where Connaught is  demolished and funding for a new school (which won’t come until next March’s provincial budget at the earliest) doesn’t materialize.

“Others probably more in the know than me are very confident we’ll get a new school,” he says. “I’m actually not confident. We’ve seen a real slowdown in the economy.

“You look at all the projects we have going on: the stadium, waste water treatment plant, the bypass, there’s three other P3 schools being built separate from Connaught. I’m worried if next year’s budget is tight and the province needs to make some tough choices, I’m not sure how high a priority [a replacement school] will be.”

Instead, Fraser wanted to delay a decision on demolition until a firm agreement was in place to fund a new school. But council disagreed.

It now seems inevitable that, come the end of June, Connaught will close and starting in September the school population will be bused to Wascana School at Pasqua & 4th Ave. That school is being vacated as children move to the new Seven Stones facility at 1132 McTavish.

The projected timeline for having a new school on the Connaught site is September 2017 (again, that’s contingent on provincial funding). Previously slated for closure, Wascana will now receive $1.4 million in upgrades to house the Connaught children. The school board will also be on the hook for busing costs of around $200,000 a year.

As part of its outreach to the Connaught community, the school board offered tours of Wascana. Amy Petrovich, who has two school-age children, toured the facility twice. “My impression wasn’t good. I was pretty shocked by the cracks in the walls, the smells in the rooms, and the basement was terrible. They told us one of the stairwells was blocked off because they were working on it already because one of the columns had failed.”

Petrovich’s assessment is supported by a 2012 engineering report that describes Wascana as being in “poor condition.”

While Petrovich is rightly concerned about her children spending the next three years at Wascana, she was equally upset for children currently at the school. “The conditions are terrible, and no kid should have to go to a school like that. And it’s really crappy that they’re renovating while the kids are still there. The drywall dust was ridiculous when I was there, and kids shouldn’t have to go to school in that. They should have waited until the end of the school year.”

Connaught parents are also concerned about the transportation situation, and whether before- and after-school programs will be available at Wascana or another location to accommodate working parents.

“So far nothing’s been pinned down, and it’s getting pretty late as parents need to know when the new school year starts whether they’ll need to make day care arrangements or try to change their hours of work or whatever,” she says. “It’s a big impact on parents.”