Premier John Horgan paid a second visit to the Tri-Cities in as many weeks Tuesday, as his campaign continued to spin the party as the best option to see the region’s four ridings, and the province, out of the COVID-19 crisis.
While last week, Horgan touted the NDP’s track-record on affordable housing at a church in NDP MLA Selina Robinson’s Coquitlam-Maillardville seat, today the premier paid a visit to Nestor elementary near Town Centre Park to recommit to the building a $117 million school on Burke Mountain, one of 13 school projects expected to transform Tri-City neighbourhoods.
In what appeared to be another ‘re-announcement’ of previous promises, Horgan along with NDP candidate for Coquitlam-Burke Mountain Fin Donnelly, said the slated joint middle and secondary school was in its final phase of the concept plan.
But that plan and today’s announcement appear to have been set in motion by the NDP after they changed the approval process for school funding across the province.
Coquitlam School District 43 finished its proposal plan for the school in June 2019.
“Up until last year, that was the final stage before you receive funding approval,” said Ivano Cecchini, executive director of facilities and planning services for the district.
But then, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in B.C., the district received a letter from the Ministry of Education saying a new step known as a “concept plan” would be required to move forward on funding the school.
The March 6 letter, seen by the Tri-City News, provided no rational as to why the new step was added before the province would decide on whether to fund a new school, but in later conversations, Cecchini said he was told it was part of a new Ministry of Education approval process to ensure alternative arrangements couldn’t be made before approving funds.
“We were completely prepared and ready to go with this project a long time ago,” said SD43 school trustee Kerri Palmer Isaak. “Then the ministry came back and asked for this new concept plan.”
It’s a delay BC Liberal MLA Joan Isaacs looks to be capitalizing on as she seeks to defend her Coquitlam-Burke Mountain seat — a riding she narrowly took in 2017 by a mere 87 votes.
In a BC Liberal statement released immediately following Horgan and Donnelly’s comments, Isaacs said she has repeatedly pushed Education Minister Rob Fleming to commit to a timeline on the construction of the Burke Mountain school “and he’s repeatedly made excuses.”
“After 3 years, the NDP continue to put up hurdles and roadblocks to delay this much-needed school,” she added in the written statement, before repeating the BC Liberal’s own promise to get the school built.
NO LONGER THE GREENEST SCHOOL IN CANADA
Meanwhile, Cecchini said SD43 immediately moved to work through the new concept plan, a document he said mostly involved reorganizing information already provided in June 2019. Other details required by the new document include additional investigation into why the district needs a new school, how the construction of the school will be executed and what are the projected costs and financial risks of the project.
Initially pitched to be the greenest school in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic sunk those plans for the Burke Mountain school after funding to implement green designs and technology became increasingly hard to access, according to Cecchini.
“When COVID hit, we weren’t able to go through that process to get the funds… We weren’t able to get a face-to-face in front of people that may be able to help the cause,” he said, pointing to federal grant programs, corporate donations and planned community fundraising efforts.
“It’s really too bad, because it’s something we really really want to do.”
DID SD43’S TIMELINE TRIGGER HORGAN’S VISIT?
The timing of Horgan’s visit comes as SD43 looks to submit the concept plan over the next day or two, the later of which Cecchini confirmed to the Tri-City News.
Both Horgan and Donnelly also used the opportunity to attack the BC Liberals’ sale of over a dozen tracts of land to a developer who had allegedly paid below market-value for the land and given close to $1 million in donations to the party when it was in power.
Despite the political posturing on both sides and the roadblocks put up by the COVID-19 pandemic, both Isaak and Cecchini said getting the Burke Mountain middle and secondary school built remains a top priority and the largest capital investment for the district.
“We’ve worked so hard to fast-track this school, to get attention from the ministry,” said Isaak. “COVID has definitely played a role in changing the focus temporarily for parents.. [but] the need for a middle/secondary up there is nothing but obvious.”
“This school has to happen.”