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Parkland approved as province rolls out asset sale plan

School District 43 is taking its first tentative steps towards a plan to sell some surplus school assets to raise funds for future capital projects and is doing so with the full support of the provincial government.

School District 43 is taking its first tentative steps towards a plan to sell some surplus school assets to raise funds for future capital projects and is doing so with the full support of the provincial government.

On Tuesday, trustees gave unanimous approval to a plan to rezone eight lots at Parkland elementary school in Coquitlam for housing - the same day the province sent out a letter laying out the details of its Release of Assets for Economic Generation (RAEG) program to superintendents and secretary-treasurers around the province.

According to the letter, the province has laid out 2013/2014 as the "preferred" timeframe for completion of property sales by boards of education. Net proceeds can be retained and spent in the district, the letter states, but the amount may be booked by the province as revenue.

The Parkland property is expected to generate between $3 million to $5 million and that cash could be socked away for projects, including much-needed replacement of Banting middle school and a new elementary school on Burke Mountain, and trustees approved the next stage in the process with little comment.

"This is really difficult. It's as difficult as closing schools because these lands are a community asset," said Anmore/Belcarra trustee Holly Butterfield, one of the few trustees to express her doubts about the plan. However, she voted in favour of proceeding with the land sale along with the rest of the trustees, noting that schools are "desperately needed" in Burke Mountain.

Her comments were a rare peek into the mind-set of trustees who haven't been very vocal at board meetings about the merits of selling surplus school land. Unlike school closures, which generated significant controversy a few years ago, trustees have been somewhat quiet about the necessity of selling land to raise funds for new or replacement schools.

Land dealings are one of those things usually discussed in camera and although parents have requested more advance notice and details about the district's long-term view of needs and assets, the district is unable to comply. The lack of transparency was a bone of contention among Porter Street elementary school parents whose fields were taken off the list of possible assets to be sold at a board meeting two weeks ago.

However, the rolling out of the provincial RAEG program, which was first outlined in the 2012 provincial budget, according to the letter, offers some insight into the district's thinking as to why this process is being undertaken now. As well, the district was informed earlier this fall that no money was available for new capital project proposals for the first two years of the five-year-capital plan.

After reading out parts of the letter to trustees Tuesday, secretary treasurer Rick Humphreys noted that the Parkland elementary school property disposition proposal is being undertaken with the support, encouragement and timelines of the provincial government. "What the board has been looking at is complying with that requirement," Humphreys told to the board .

The district still needs the approval of the city of Coquitlam, as well as the province, before it can proceed with a rezoning change for eight lots, and the community will also need to support the plan.

Currently, the property, approximately 12% of the total site, is grassed but is mostly unused as the school has a grass and an all weather field for children to play on.

Board chair Melissa Hyndes said Parkland is a good "test site" for the land disposal process because it's not being used and in fact, developing the property for housing could, according to the district, actually improve safety and security for students because a lane will be put in.

But she admitted that the idea of selling school land assets is not well understood or nor accepted by all people, especially in neighbourhoods that might be affected, and the district has to move cautiously.

"When you go down a path like this there is always trepidation. Our duty is to be fiscally responsible and look after the students in the entire district," she said.

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