Former school board chair Brent Atkinson shares his perspective on the many curves in the road to a new high school.
What was the process like when you were a trustee?
You’d have to get the ministry approval, but you can go ahead with some designs and some other issues, once the money has been approved, which we did. We came up with two separate proposals, both of which the community had turned down. And then we ran into the problems with, unfortunately, Mr. Puchmayr. … Some student at UBC that was doing some research for him, came up with the issue over the cemetery, which delayed the process for some time, unfortunately, until it was finally resolved to the best of our ability.
So the cemetery was never an issue before the district started planning the new school?
No. There was no issue going into the project because nobody had raised the issue. The issue wasn’t raised until the assistant of Mr. Puchmayr and Mr. Puchmayr raised it.… That definitely delayed the whole process, because we had to go through that issue, which still isn’t totally behind us, because when the new construction, or a new proposal is put forth, in terms of the building is to be relocated, it obviously can’t be where the existing building is because we have to keep the existing building open while we build the new one, but we’ll have to do some research under the ground just to reaffirm that there’s no issue with any of that property being impacted dramatically by the cemetery.
My belief is there are few graves that will be impacted by the new construction on the basis that … that’s not where the burial site was. The burial site was where the existing school is primarily and underneath the buildings that are currently there, which were built in the ’49 and ’55.
What was the community response to the two designs being proposed by the board of education at the time?
The vocal minority of the community always has a lot to say, I guess. There was a lot of objection to the three towers because apparently they didn’t want the towers built there, although there’s other towers two blocks away that are twice as tall. That didn’t make very much sense to me. But for other unknown reasons, when we also wanted to put some condos up above and put the school board offices and stuff on the main floor, the public didn’t think that there should be any commercial enterprise, such as the school board offices or anything else on the site, because they didn’t think that was a good idea, I guess. At least the public that spoke up. … It wasn’t a massive protest, but it was enough of a protest that the council at the time wouldn’t support it and some of the trustees wouldn’t support it either.
Was council involved in the decision-making process?
No, it wasn’t. The council has previously made … a verbal commitment, at least in the meeting that I had, to go ahead with the initial project, but then, when push came to shove it was decided that in actual fact, they’d never passed a motion in writing and therefore they weren’t bound by it. So they didn’t proceed with it, and when the community or some of the vocal community decided that they didn’t want the project, then council, of course, wasn’t going to get behind it for sure. It’s too bad, actually because they were two really good projects, and the school would have long since built, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.
You guys were looking at a five-storey high school at one point weren’t you?
Yeah, that was one of the options we were looking at. There have been all kinds of changes over time, I mean we were looking at quite a larger school, now they’re looking at quite a smaller school.
Well, at that time, we didn’t have the third middle school built. We didn’t even have the second middle school built, I guess. And we were maintaining some of the Grade 8s and Grade 9s on the site, and we wanted to build for around, and this is all from memory, about 2,200 and I think now, it’s probably scaled down to about 1,800 or 1,700.
Looking back, do you ever think if you had done some things differently, it would have been approved?
Well, no it would have been approved if the council at the time and the community at the time had chosen to approve the designs that we had put forth. I guess what’s frustrating sometimes, because I also operated businesses as well being as a trustee, what’s frustrating is that it doesn’t take that many people, even though it might be a minority of the public, to disrupt the process.
I think the situation at the high school is really unfortunate, because when we got the money approved in 2005, I had a lot of grandchildren in the system, and I assumed some of them would be graduating from the high school, but as it happens, two of them have graduated already, some of them are in middle school now and by the time we get the school built some of those won’t be going through the new school either because it’s still isn’t built at this point.
The district can’t share any of the proposed designs with the public until the project receives provincial approval, what do you think about that?
Well, that’s kind of unfortunate too, because if we had some idea of what it was they were proposing, we, being the public, would be more aggressive, I would think, of trying to help them proceed with it. It’s hard, and I mean I am very supportive of them proceeding with whatever it is they’re trying to proceed with, but as far as getting a public lobby to support it, we came forward with two concrete proposals as to what we were going to do, and the public turned ours down.
Do you think maybe it was a case of too many cooks in the kitchen?
Well, what happens when you come forward with a proposal is that everybody … becomes a professional builder overnight and decides what they would do. And if you’re not prepared to do that, they go against it. That’s the risk you’re at. But the other risk is, the vast majority of the community, who are not actively at the school right now, to go out and ask them to support the replacement of the school when you don’t have anything to see or look at, is pretty difficult. Conceptually, the taxpayers and the senior citizens, you’re trying to sell them on a concept when you don’t have a proposal. … It’s a catch-22 either way, but I’d much rather have a proposal to say, ‘Look, this is what we need, this why we need it.’ They may have turned down two previous ones, but time goes on and we’ve got to get on with it.
If the community and city council had been supportive back in 2005, would we have a new high school?
Oh sure. The ministry had looked at the proposals and had been supportive of replacement of the high school, but once it lost the community support, … then that killed it. You’ve got to remember it’s probably the most expensive capital budget item in the province for the Ministry of Education. It was then, and it still is.
So once the replacement school gets the green light, do you think, this time, the community will jump on board, no matter what the plan looks like?
I think they’ll be supportive.
How will you feel once the high school gets the go-ahead?
I’m overjoyed as soon as somebody puts a shovel in the ground. If I’m in town, I might even be there to see the shovel put in the ground. Like I said, I’ve got at least three more grandchildren in the system who, I hope, are going to be able to attend it and some point in time. That would make me very happy.
A look back:
(timeline created by Cornelia Naylor)
May 2003 Ministry of Education gives SD40 the go-ahead to build new middle school and renovate or replace NWSS, stipulates no money forthcoming for purchase of middle school land. District’s projected completion: September 2006.
April 2004 District announces plans for $34 -million project for new middle and high schools on NWSS site, along with a housing development, and the sale of school district lands to help pay for the project.
Summer 2004 District tears down school board offices, library’s resource and media area, smoke stack, old Massey office, 12 classrooms in Massey wing and band rooms, and lays down 248 parking stalls to prepare for impending construction.
September 2004 Issue of cemetery raised by residents opposed to district selling off part of NWSS land for housing. District commissions study by local historian Archie Miller.
2004-2006 Housing development shelved. School district and city pursue an ambitious plan, dubbed the New Westminster Centre for Community Achievement, which includes a new high school, a combined community arts and cultural facility, Massey Theatre improvements, two lit synthetic turf fields, a sports annex and a street skate park.
November 2005 Tenders to build the combined project come in nearly $20 million over anticipated cost.
2006 Original project dies after years of debate between district, city, public and province
July 2007 Education ministry announces new plans for middle and high school will proceed under “tight new controls.”
June 2008 Province allows for planning for middle school at another site because the cemetery was bigger than expected and never properly decommissioned.
October 2008 - February 2009 Grimston Park residents and Lord Kelvin Elementary parents rally against placement of middle school at Grimston Park and Kelvin respectively. Other West End parents oppose proposal to place elementary school on high school site.
April 2009 District announces plan to build a new K-5 school at the old St. Mary’s Hospital site, a new Grade 6-8 school at John Robson Elementary/Simcoe Park site and a new Grade 9-12 high school on NWSS site. (This plan sticks.)
September 2014New elementary school, École Qayqayt Elementary School, opens.
June 3, 2015 Ministry of Education informs district it has received its completed project development report and hopes to be in a position to request funding from the provincial treasury by the summer. District says high school construction should start by summer 2016.
September 2016 Anticipated opening of new middle school, École Fraser River Middle School, one year behind schedule.