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[UPDATE] $106 million set for new high school

For the second time in two decades, the provincial government has approved funding for a New Westminster Secondary School replacement project.

For the second time in two decades, the provincial government has approved funding for a New Westminster Secondary School replacement project.

Politicians, district staff, parents and students descended on the high school Tuesday to hear the education minister announce that after a year of waiting, funding had finally been approved for New Westminster’s long-awaited new high school.

“I’m really excited we’ve been able to find a path through this. I think, as a lot of people in the area know, parents that are here today, people from New Westminster, this is a long time coming, but it’s not a project we wanted to rush into,” Education Minister Mike Bernier told the crowd.

The announcement comes one year after the New Westminster school district submitted its project definition report to the Ministry of Education. The district had expected a funding approval last fall, but the fall soon passed without word from the province. Bernier toured the high school in December, at which time he told the Recordan announcement could be expected in early 2016. That time too came and went without any news.

Now that the project is approved, however, some parents are expressing caution rather than excitement.

Danielle Connelly, whose two sons are in grades 4 and 6, told the Recordshe was pleased the province had finally given the project a green light.

“It’s hard not to be excited, but we have been down this road before so there’s a tinge of cautious optimism,” she said.

Connelly organized a rally in April calling on the provincial government to approve funding for the project. Tuesday’s announcement is good news, she said, but it’ll take more than an announcement before she believes there will actually be a new high school in the near future.

“We, as a group of parents, will be staying on this until the doors are open and construction is completed and the kids have a safe school to be going into,” she said.

The $106.5 million New Westminster Secondary School replacement project is the largest education investment in the province’s history and the most expensive capital project ever undertaken, according to Bernier. The new school will have space for 2,100 students from grades 9 to 12 and is expected to open in December 2019.

But what the school will look like and where exactly it will go on the site is still unknown, at least for the public. School board chair Jonina Campbell, said the district has some ideas.

The current school sits on a cemetery that was used between 1860 and 1920 as a potter’s field where bodies of the poor, prisoners, stillborn babies and mentally ill patients from Woodlands and Essondale (later Riverview) were buried. The land was also used by Chinese, Sikh and First Nations communities to bury their dead.

“There’s some work still to be done in understanding the site and the constraints of the site. We obviously know it can’t go on designated cemetery, but we also have some heritage conservation areas that we need to better understand,” she said. “That said, obviously there’s a chunk of land out behind, near Mercer track.”

Campbell wouldn’t go into detail about what the plan is, adding that it would be premature to say anything about the plan before the design-build process gets started and the project is put out for tender.

She would say that because the existing school is really two schools joined together (Vincent Massey Junior High School, opened in 1949, and Lester Pearson High School, opened in 1954), the new school will occupy a smaller footprint than its predecessor.