Negotiations key to Burke Mountain schools

City of Coquitlam, School District 43, the province and Wesbild do deals to get land for five schools on Burke Mountain

Both School District 43 and the city of Coquitlam are taking credit for a complex set of negotiations that took nine months and some horse-trading to achieve certainty for schools on Burke Mountain. Wesbild was another key partner in the deal with the province also coming to the table with a grant for land for an elementary school on Sheffield Street.

In all, School District 43 has secured land for five schools on four parcels of land, ending months, even years of uncertainty as to where schools were going to go on Burke Mountain. Back in 2002 as many as eight schools were projected for the area expected to grow by 30,000 people, including 2,500 to 3,000 students in 15 to 20 years. But the list of school sites has diminished in part due to economics — the increasing costs of land, construction and maintenance of smaller schools and tighter funding — making it more difficult to build and operate smaller schools.

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As well, the district has had a change in educational philosophy.

LARGER SCHOOLS

SD43 now sees larger 450-student elementary schools as better than the traditional 200 to 250-student school because bigger schools have economies of scale and can provide more programs, Ivano Cecchini, principal of facilities initiatives for the district told parents at Tuesday's public meeting on Burke schools, while larger middle schools can also offer more options for kids.

Thus the number of elementary schools needed for Burke has been reduced from five to three and the number of middle schools from two to one. This philosophy, where children travel further to get to a larger school, is not what some parents told officials they wanted for their families. In fact, some wondered why a school bus service wasn't being offered but they were told it wasn't an option at least for this coming school year. Instead, the district would do what it could to squeeze children into nearby schools, such as Leigh and Irvine elementary schools, where multi-purpose rooms are being turned into classrooms and portables are being erected, with older students going to Minnekhada or Kwayhquitlum middle schools.

There is also the question about how soon a new middle school for Burke Mountain is needed. A 2023 completion date has been projected, but it could be moved up earlier if enrollment warrants, parents were told, and the district is also hoping to rebuild Minnekhada middle, deemed a seismic risk, where students could go until a new Burke middle school is built. A proposal to rebuild Minnekhada has already been sent to the province, the school district has confirmed.

TIMING KEY

Meanwhile, the district maintains it is doing what it can to get schools built, with securing the land the first step.

The timing is critical because 250 elementary school aged students have already arrived, according to Cecchini, and those numbers will bolster the district's case for securing $18 million in funding for the new Smiling Creek elementary school.

"From a ministry perspective they are not going to give you funds without enough demand for a school."

Part of the Smiling Creek land acquisition process was a land swap between the school district and the city for several lots of land at Victoria Park, which the school district owned, to help with the park component, then negotiations were needed to get about eight lots from private landowners, which took months, and were extremely complicated, said Cecchini, with the district paying about $5 million out of a special fund for these purposes, and the city contributing roughly equally in land and funds.

The district is also paying $1 million out of local capital reserve to fast track the design process for Smiling Creek so drawings are ready when funding is approved.

Board chair Judy Shirra said getting Smiling Creek settled took time and couldn't start until the district could prove it had "bums in seats." She is hoping the school can open in September, 2017 if the scheduling works out and the weather cooperates, with the district having a better idea about timing early in 2017. "They'll know six months out if they will be able to go into it in 2017," Shirra said.

MOVING THE MIDDLE SCHOOL

Coquitlam city manager Peter Steblin said moving the middle school next to the secondary school had a domino effect that helped with the acquisition for other parcels.

He said the city only got involved in land negotiations because of uncertainty on the mountain. Moving the middle school site to the secondary school property freed up obligations Wesbild had to hold land for the school district for a middle school for 10 years and sell it to the district at today's prices.

After considerable negotiations, the company then agreed to contribute land it owned on Marigold Street for a third elementary school, at a value of $6 million, plus service it, saving the district about $8 million, and will also donate $5 million toward an artificial turf field at the joint middle school, secondary school site, Steblin said.

“We are pleased to be a part of bringing urgently needed schools to Burke Mountain and will continue to take a strong leadership position in partnering with School District 43 and the City of Coquitlam to ensure timely construction,” stated Wesbild CEO and president Kevin Layden in a press release.

The province, meanwhile, contributed a land grand to acquire the property for the third elementary school on Sheffield.

SD43 board chair Judy Shirra says it was the cooperation of all the partners that got the job done. "It really is a true partnership, it's everybody coming to the table and saying we have to make it work."

But discussions about the future of Burke Mountain aren't over yet. House keeping changes will be needed to update the city's Official Community Plan to accommodate the changes and two rezonings are required: one for the city's Riley site, originally slated for a middle school, and another for Wesbild's property in Upper Hyde Creek, originally slated for an elementary school.

And many parents are still uncertain and worried about where they should enroll their children until the first school is built.

More information about what's happening next for those changes is available on the city's website www.coquitlam.ca/burkemtn.

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