Agassiz and Harrison’s schools could be seeing some major upgrades in the next five years.
At the school board meeting Tuesday (Aug. 27), trustees approved the district’s five-year capital plan, which includes repairs, replacements and procurements for the district’s schools and buses.
Of the 18 items in the $41.5-million plan, the two most significant changes were for Harrison Hot Springs Elementary and Agassiz Elementary Secondary School.
Both schools are in need of major seismic upgrades for the aging facilities, director of facilities and transportation Doug Templeton said, and the plan includes two options to do that.
The first is simply upgrading and replacing sections of the schools to conform with modern seismic requirements — a project that would cost $1.5 million for Harrison Elementary and $10 million for AESS. The other option is to replace the schools entirely, a project that would cost $6 million for Harrison and $18 million for AESS.
“The variable isn’t great to get a new facility versus trying to fix the old one up,” Templeton said.
AESS would only need to be partially replaced, as the gym and shops are still relatively new, Templeton said. If the province agrees to replacing the entire school, it would likely be built beside or in front of the existing school, so students could continue classwork in the current building while construction is underway.
Both AESS and Harrison Hot Springs Elementary are more than 50 years old, and schools of similar age in other districts have already been replaced.
“Neighbouring school districts have replaced that vintage of facility already,” Templeton said. “I know because I was there.”
Seismic upgrades for Kent Elementary’s gym are also included in the capital plan, at a cost of $1.5 million. School enhancement projects for Silver Creek Elementary, Hope Secondary, Coquihalla Elementary and AESS are also on the list.
New playgrounds are included for Harrison Hot Springs Elementary, Coquihalla Elementary and Silver Creek Elementary, and several new buses are also being requested.
(The district requested buses with seatbelts during their last capital plan — those will be arriving this October.)
Significant to future students in the Fraser-Cascade School District is the $2 million dedicated for “site acquisition” on the west side of the District of Kent for a new elementary school.
“This is something I discussed with Natalie (Lowe) and I said it’s time for us to put it on the capital plan ,” Templeton explained. “We don’t know exactly where growth is going to go in the Agassiz-Harrison corridor, but if it goes to a percentage of what’s happening in Chilliwack, it may make a requirement for another elementary school.”
There’s no definitive timeline for when a school site would be purchased, Templeton said. Having it in the capital plan would allow the district to look for opportunities as they come up — and before they are needed.
“Nothing’s going to happen this year, but you never know,” he said.
The intense growth in Chilliwack’s school district had a significant impact on the decision to put a property purchase in the 2020-2021 capital plan.
“Chilliwack got caught a little bit flat-footed,” Templeton said. “When you’re growing by 300 or 400 kids a year, that’s a school.
“You got to plan a long ways down the road … It’s important that we try to stay a step ahead of the development requirement.”
The school district still owns the old McCaffrey Alternative School property, located along Dogwood Road. According to secretary-treasurer Natalie Lowe, this two-acre property is too small to build a modern school on.
“You need a minimum of four to five acres,” she said. “That site, we haven’t needed it, but we haven’t known for sure how we wanted to repurpose it. So it seemed a little premature to look at selling it until we had a good use for the money or a good use for the property.”
During the meeting, Templeton indicated that the Ministry of Education might be more willing to undertake some of the school district’s more expensive projects if the district is able to pitch in some money of their own.
The ministry “is trying to suggest that if in a partnership with the school district we could manage a way to participate in the projects and make it a win-win politically for the treasury board, as being the district who has some wherewithal to contribute or consider other assets … it could liquidate to help fund the project,” he said.
Lowe said this money could come from the sale of the McCaffrey School property, but that it wasn’t decided yet.
“It’s a potential,” she said. “I think we have to always recognize that taxpayer funds are limited, and if we can assist somehow in getting something the community needs that will last for a long period of time and benefit the kids now, we need to look at that.”
The capital plan was approved unanimously during the school board meeting, and will be sent to the Ministry of Education for review and approval. Lowe said there is no definitive date for when the ministry will get back to the school district with which projects will be able to go forward, but said she expects to hear back within four or five months.
Decisions on what funds, if any, would come from the school district will not be made until the ministry has responded with their approval for the projects.