By Mike Williscraft
The new Niagara West super school money pit will get deeper – and now has the attention of the Ministry of Education – before things get any better.
As first reported in NewsNow Dec. 31, the site for the new Niagara West high school has incurred $17.4 million in site remediation costs.
Kim Sweeney, District School Board of Niagara’s chief communications officer, confirmed the project has incurred well over $12 million in cost overruns after $5 million was budgeted for site preparation when the land acquisition was approved by the school board in February 2019.
This is only one of the significant issues the project has at this early stage.
According to an internal memo, another $3.3 million in remaining work to prepare the site is still outstanding.
As well, DSBN officials went ahead with the extra work not only without the Ministry of Education’s knowledge, but there was no approval to proceed (ATP) with the work which resulted in the additional $12.4 million cost overrun.
Despite the information in the report, Sweeney maintains the added cost is not in play.
“The information about the $3.3 (million) is incorrect. There is no additional $3.3 million worth of work needed on the site before construction of West Niagara Secondary can begin,” noted Sweeney in email responses to questions.
The school board had to request, after the fact, approval to use $12 million from its proceeds of disposition (POD) account to cover the financial hit.
It is still unclear if this has been approved at this time.
Sweeney said the Ministry of Education has now approved the use of POD funds.
“The additional $12 million did not come from the Ministry of Education but came from the DSBN’s Proceeds of Disposition. However, before we were able to use these funds, we had to get approval from the Ministry of Education,” Sweeney said.
When NewsNow broke the first story three weeks ago, comments poured into the office, many asking how DSBN could not have known the soil problems with its chosen site were extensive.
Among them was Bob Thompson, who even wrote to DSBN’s Grimsby Lincoln Trustee Elizabeth Klassen in August 2019 – four months into the work – “The soil remediation is taking a long time. Is there a problem?”
To which Klassen replied, “The soil remediation is on schedule and I am not aware of any delays. Findings were only some construction items such as wood in the soil that we must remove.”
Sweeney confirmed the school board apparently knew nothing of the serious issues about 25 per cent of the way through the remediation process, which “lasted for approximately 18 months.”
The problems, Sweeney said, started some time in Fall 2019.
“During the process of removing the fill — through constant inspection, testing and reporting — it was discovered that additional quantities of fill over and above what was originally estimated would have to be removed,” Sweeney said.
“The remediation process was done in complete consultation with environmental engineers and the Ministry of Environment – it followed strict protocols and regulations.”
“The DSBN is committed to having a safe and clean site for the future students of WNSS (West Niagara Secondary School)… The remediation work on the site is now complete.”
In answer to other concerns about site stability and fill needs based on the size of the hole currently covering the site, Sweeney said all required work has been done to ensure no special measures will be needed during construction.
“The excavation and filling required to build the school on this site has been completed. The way the land is currently developed is due to the design of the building which has three storeys in the back, and two storeys in the front,” noted Sweeney, who added the back is a walk-out design.
“The fill on the site has been engineered in preparation for the building. No additional stabilization supports are required to begin construction on the school.”
None of this has provided Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff with any level of comfort.
“I have been clear since the beginning of this process that the community preference which I have heard, was for maintenance and investing in our existing local schools, by DSBN,” said Oosterhoff.
“That’s why I fought against the closure of these schools in the hearts of our towns.”
Regardless, he added taxpayers are right to expect better.
“The taxpayers of Niagara and Ontario rightly expect value for money when it comes to major projects such as this, and I am disappointed to see such substantial overages from DSBN,” said Oosterhoff.
“I will be asking for a review of the reasons for this overage from DSBN, and will bring this also to the attention of the Minister of Education.”
As well, Oosterhoff said he would be requesting a joint meeting with DSBN and Ministry of Education officials to apprise all of the current state of affairs with the new super school project.