Opinion: Province needs to step up

By Mike Williscraft

It may seem odd to quote a Niagara Falls mayor – from a completely separate issue – regarding a Niagara West matter which had nothing to do with the comment’s origin save for one critical area.

Last week, Jim Diodati, regarding Niagara Region support for a 21 per cent funding level on the local share of new build spend for West Lincoln Memorial Hospital, said, “Consultants make recommendations. We make decisions.”

This is the kind of separation District School Board of Niagara trustees should have used years ago when considering the super school plan which will ultimately lead to the demise of three storied secondary school institutions – not one, not two, but three local schools.

It has been said before in this space, many years ago going back to when the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process was first announced, and it will undoubtedly appear again in the future – this whole project was a mistake waiting to happen from the get-go.

Going back a decade, I had a large group of Grimsby Secondary School teachers giving me details on how the facility was being eroded from the inside out, the end result of which was a dwindling student population.

Absolutely none of that matters. It is done. It is now in the past.

What does matter is how taxpayer funded institutions conduct themselves.

In that regard, I ask you to set aside the issue of site contamination and the ridiculous financial price paid by the DSBN to remediate the land.

What the provincial government needs to do in this instance is act, decisively, to protect taxpayers.

Mistakes happen, sure. Options were few for a high school site, so DSBN decided to bite off clearly more than it could chew. Now, it appears there is a discrepancy regarding what school board officials knew and when with trustees telling residents two very different stories.

Regardless of even that, the provincial government cannot allow the withholding of information, the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach of the DSBN to perpetuate a day longer.

One could argue all day whether the super school should have floated in the first place, whether the Hwy. 8 site should have been chosen at all, or if site contamination was too massive a hurdle to clear in the planning process.

However, when millions of taxpayers’ dollars were gushing out the door over the span of many months, someone had to approve the work. Someone had to approve payments. Many must have turned their heads and held their collective noses at the stench of the rot this process was oozing.

I know the deputy minister of education either has or plans to place a phone call to DSBN to issue some level of censure or condemnation, but when one looks at the impact this project will have on the community, the government owes it to the Riding to go further.

Why? Here’s the nut of it.

All governments are tight for cash. If the Ministry had known the site and preparation (about $20 million once finally ready) on its own would cost nearly 50 per cent of the construction budget ($42.5 million), would the green light have been given at all?

When they were looking at approving an all-in cost of about $47.5 million from DSBN projections, the cost overrun will equate to nearly 1/3 of original budget…and that is if the rest of the project stays on its original budget.

Somewhere along the line, DSBN officials had to knowingly look the other way. They had to purposefully NOT report the escalation of the contamination found. They had to not seek approval for the additional $12.4 million (and more) in remediation costs.

On no planet can that be tolerated.

For that reason, the whole affair should be halted and immediately reviewed to re-assess its need and validity. If DSBN officials will go so far as to deceive the Ministry of Education, how can earlier parts of the process be considered credible.

We’re just the lowly taxpayers who want the best for our communities. We get lied to all the time under the banner, “we know what’s best for you.”

So when it is the Ministry of Education that is made a rube of, well, if that does not escalate ramifications and penalties, what can?

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