Opinion: High school build problems easily foreseen

By Mike Williscraft

Before I get into the serious problems with the new Niagara West high school build, I would just like to note Grimsby is 3-4 more ridiculous moves away by the Grimsby 5 from ensuring Main Street East turns in Winston Road East.

A seven-storey condo in the works already, a five-storey parking building discussed, but apparently nothing formal as yet and now the heritage conservation study gets delayed, if it happens at all.

* * * * * * *

Now, everybody and their brother was aware that the site planned for the new Niagara West high school – on Hwy. 8 just west of Durham Road – was contaminated.

Everybody also knew the District School Board of Niagara had precious few options when it came to sourcing a site for the new facility.

So when it was announced that location had been purchased for the facility which will house more than 1,500 students from Grimsby, Lincoln and West Lincoln after each community’s long-time schools have been closed, all knew a ton of work would be needed.

Clearly that has come to pass with news coming to me last week that the tab for remediation of the soil at the new site has come in far over triple its initial $5 million budget, settling at about $17 million.

This whole thing was on a fast track to nowhere from the get-go, now this budget being so far out of whack only proves what most Niagara West residents knew all along, namely:

• DSBN should have properly conducted ongoing renovations to the three local schools instead of letting them deteriorate to the point where they needed (according to DSBN figures released during the Accommodation Review Committee process) about $49 million in repairs and renovation to get them up to par;
• If programming had not been reconfigured so as to push students away from the three public high schools through class limitations and major declines in the student environments, student populations would have been much more healthy when the ARC process was conducted, and;
• Skyrocketing development in Niagara West would make school board student projection at the time (Dec.-Jan 2016/17 was when the ARC process unfolded) obsolete.

All that fell on deaf ears and here we are.

The whole new build was budgeted for $42 million.

Site acquisition and remediation was budgeted for $8.7 million.

So, the combined budgeted cost was $50.5 million. Now with the remediation overrun, that jumps to $62.5 million with the tender just going out and the shovel months away from going into the ground.

This whole thing was a mistake from the start but systematic of how school boards operate anymore.

Schools, which are absolutely intrinsic to the fabric of communities are sacrificed all the time in the name of what school board officials deem educational improvements.

If all three schools could have been brought right up to speed – after being ignored for years – for $49 million, the DSBN could have used the $13.5 million left from its new build expense to ramp up the old facilities even more.

And I don’t want throw West Lincoln under the bus – but even if South Lincoln was closed and those kids were bussed to Grimsby Secondary or Beamsville District – repairs to that school could have saved another chunk of millions to make preserving the other two institutions at the heart of their respective communities even more financially viable.

But no, water under the bridge all in the name of progress.

Yes, the new school will be shiny and pretty and have some bells and whistles, but not all the bells and whistles waved around like carrots during the ARC process. Some took the bait on those, forgetting everything still has to be paid for.

At a time when the provincial government is crying for money, they could have had two rebuilt schools in Grimsby and Beamsville, geared up for student growth AND saved $20 million….and counting.

What really stinks is all this could be foreseen right from the start. Many times in this space over the last four years, these points were made, but the machine was too big and too powerful to listen or respect the concerns of those who voiced opposing opinions.

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