In the end it was an easy decision, but trustee approval Tuesday (March 1) to divert $25 million from operating funds to build a new joint middle/high school for Burke Mountain in Coquitlam didn't come without a lot of hand-wringing.
Trustees were warned during the virtual board meeting that without the 1,000-seat institution, School District 43 (SD43) would have to spend $14 million on 40 portables and could lose out on provincial funding altogether if rampant inflation put the now $145-million project out of reach.
But if they agreed on the contribution, spread over five years, they were told they could expect a B.C. government decision on funding by April or May.
INTERNATIONAL STUDENT FEES USED
The rapidly growing Burke Mountain neighbourhood has been demanding a joint middle and secondary school for several years and this is the closest the project has come to fruition.
To be built on a steep slope near the corner of David Avenue and Coast Meridian Road in Coquitlam, to the east of a small strip mall, the school is for a northeastern community that is expected to have 50,000 after build-out.
Starting out as a joint middle-secondary school, as student enrolment increases, a second school would be built.
With Tuesday's approval, the funds will come from a mix of capital reserves, savings and future surpluses, including:
- $10 million set aside for an addition at Scott Creek Middle School that the province will now likely fund
- Savings from winding up a former employee pension plan
- Future surpluses from international education fees the district has been using to smooth funding shortfalls and balance the budget
But the decision, though ultimately unanimous, generated significant concern among trustees.
"We've had some creative ideas over the years and we've tried everything," said Kerri Palmer Isaak, Anmore Belcarra trustee and former board chair.
"But this is what we've come down to tonight. I'm very concerned that this is precedent-setting on the part of the province in terms of funding schools and that this will be a bit of a slippery slope."
NEW SCHOOL COULD OPEN IN 2026
Port Moody Trustee Lisa Park suggested the provincial demand for cash was "unfair," given that the Central Okanagan Public Schools board only had to contribute $3 million toward its $103-million high school.
"And I'm really sad that actually we have to use operating budget to build this new school. You know, that money should be used for classrooms and for resources," she said.
Secretary-treasurer Mohammed Azim explained that the province is aware of the challenge the district faces in coming up with the money, but the district has already received funding for additions and other school projects in the recent past and this is the best way to get the province to agree to funding such an enormous project.
He agreed that community fundraising could be explored but under provincial funding rules money generated by parent advisory councils or other groups couldn't go toward school construction costs.
Coquitlam Trustee Carol Cahoon said that while the contribution is large, it is necessary to get the school built, and might be cheaper in the long run than putting portables on the grounds of over-crowded schools.
MASS TIMBER CONSTRUCTION UNLIKELY
"I feel a little bit of peace knowing that the $25 million isn't having to be paid right away. It's spread over five years, so I'm hoping that possibly international ed or the rental income or other forms of surplus will maybe soften those blows over the five years," said Cahoon, adding that purchasing portables at $350,000 each would be expensive.
Board Chair Michael Thomas, a Port Coquitlam trustee, said the district is in a difficult position having to come up with the money but the community needs the school.
"I spoke to the Minister of Education myself. I informed her that there would be no two ways about it," he said.
"If we were required to put $25 million into this project that it would have to come out of operating and that we simply did not have the capital reserves. And while she sympathized and understood, my understanding is the decision was made by Treasury Board and and out of her control."
"We do need the school," Thomas said.
Costs have been rising for the building, originally expected to cost $125 million, but so far using mass timber construction for the new build is not in the plans.
It was considered but Azim told trustees there are too many complications to using mass timber, including B.C. Building Code specifications.
Coquitlam has sought permission to be able to build mass timber buildings.
Previously, Thomas has said he's optimistic that, after so many years of lobbying and a major funding commitment from the district, the project will get done.
"If everything lines up and they indicate we can use design, bid, build and we receive funding in April or May. We anticipate doors opening in September 2026," he told the Tri-City News.