The Chilliwack School Board has spoken up loud and clear that new school space is desperately needed here. Now, all they can do is wait for a reply.
On a recent tour of four local schools, education minister Mike Bernier was shown how critical the need is for a new school on the south side. Barring that, the school board told him they would love to move ahead with a long-planned expansion of Promontory elementary – a school currently at double its intended enrolment.
The board has moved the $3.6 million Promontory addition to the top of their priority list in their current Five-Year Capital Plan, just slightly above other infrastructure upgrades such as an addition at GW Graham middle secondary school.
The addition is about half the cost of a new elementary school, which is estimated to cost a little over $6 million.
“We met with the minister and did talk about the two issues,” says board chair Silvia Dyck. “We offered him the bandaid solution of expanding the Promontory school, and he did say he would take it back to his ministry.”
As the board anxiously awaits a response, it’s entirely likely that more families will be arriving here. Chilliwack is growing at a strong and steady pace, and new construction sites are popping up weekly.
Last September, the board was hit with a huge enrollment increase and another influx is expected this September. The board is currently using all of its 80 portables. And while portables are a great option for fluctuating school sizes, they don’t help with increased needs such as washroom facilities, gym time, field use, library time, and other services.
Even if the expansion at Promontory were to happen — which Dyck says would take up to a year and a half to build — they would require three portables.
Families living in the southside are familiar with the overcrowding issues. There are families who live across from Promontory and GW Graham that their children can’t attend. Elementary students in Promontory are bussed (at a cost to parents) to Vedder, and once the spaces are filled there, to Watson. Right now, there is an 80 student waiting list in the Promontory catchment area.
“If we get the same numbers as we did (last September), we’re going to be struggling,” Dyck says. “We’ve got no portables left.”
She said the Promontory expansion is something that could be done very quickly, compared to the creation of a whole new school. That new school also is an urgent need though. And while schools on the north side of the freeway are generally under capacity, new housing is on the horizon at the old UFV property.
“It’s never been this bad,” Dyck says. “We’ve always had a little bit of an increase, but we’ve always been able to manage it. We do need a new school eventually, but the pressure is on now and coming faster than expected, part of that is the growth of the city. It’s less expensive, with lower taxes and being a great community to live in.”
Dyck says she’s impressed with how staff has managed under such conditions.
“We have excellent staff who do amazing things, it’s exhausting with crowded classrooms. It puts pressure on everyone.”
MLA Laurie Throness joined the board members and Minister Bernier on their recent tour of four schools.
“We spent all day with him, we toured Promontory,” Throness said. “I don’t think anyone argues the need, the question is, is the funding available?” We’re going to continue to work on it bearing in mind the needs across the province.”
He added that “Chilliwack has been very well served by the province over the last decade,” with about $140 million in capital funding. Capital funds are not just for building new schools though, and that money has gone toward things like mechanical upgrades, school enhancements and buses.
This year, Chilliwack will get funding for four buses, a request that had been passed over the previous two years.
In addition to submitting the capital plan to the ministry, the board intends to keep in contact with Bernier on the topic of expanding Promontory.
“We’re going to pursue him to get a response,” Dyck says.
Funding has been approved to replace the electrical transformer at Vedder middle, up to $164,500, and the school buses, at $133,570. The new transformer will be in place by March 2017, and the new buses will be purchased prior to start of the new school year.