City pushing for more schools

Council revives notion of buying sites for future locations

New school sites in Silver Valley and Albion are once again a priority for Maple Ridge council.

At Monday morning’s meeting, a majority of councillors got behind a plan to secure sites for future schools, and help the district in lobbying the Ministry of Education for money to build new schools.

Mayor Nicole Read said she had good conversations with Education Minister Peter Fassbender about the issue – enrolment in schools in the western regions of the city have declined, while growth is occurring in the east, and schools are needed there.

“We need to make development decisions,” said Read. “The community is very uptight about development decisions, and rightfully so, because there is no clear plan for next steps to get the school sites in Albion and Silver Valley.”

Before she was elected, Read was a spokesperson for a group called Action Silver Valley that lobbied for new schools in that community. She promised to have an elementary school built there if elected.

On Monday, she said the city has to get involved, and “perhaps, if we need to, find the mechanism by which we purchase the site and secure it, and then help the school board to have the conversation with the ministry, because this has got to move forward.”

Council directed staff to work with school administrators to identify potential sites, and do a report.

Coun. Gordy Robson said the school district should sell off school sites where there are few students, purchase new sites in growing areas, and build the facilities.

“By selling the rest of the lands that they’ve identified as excess, that they can accomplish whatever they want. Why not? Why aren’t they doing that?” said Robson.

“I can’t see why we couldn’t get a school in Silver Valley, and one in Albion under construction this year.”

Coun. Bob Masse said the education ministry must approve such decisions, and has so far been unwilling.

“The provincial government has not been at all as reasonable, as agreeable, as one would think,” said Masse.

Chief administrator Jim Rule said the city is dealing with two separate issues – the first is securing school sites, and the next is trying to get schools built – which is entirely the purview of the school district.

“We’re absolutely prepared to work with the city on this,” said school board chairman Mike Murray in an interview.

He said the school district’s facilities review shows the board will need to acquire a school site in Silver Valley. It will also have to develop a site it already has on 104th Avenue to serve the Albion area, and acquire one additional site for a school in that neighbourhood. There is a site identified at 108th Avenue and 248th Street. The schools would have 550 students.

While the board is ready to acquire sites to help the city plan its neighbourhoods, getting ministry approval to build new schools will be difficult, because there is still capacity in Maple Ridge schools.

“We do have room in our facilities,” said Murray. “We know we will need new schools, the question is when.”

What’s more, he said the operating costs for schools is high. The board has faced budget shortfalls in recent years, and is once again looking at a shortfall of more than $2 million this year, so it cannot take on added costs.

Coun. Corisa Bell was the lone voice speaking against acquiring land for school sites. She said when the city tried the same initiative in the past, the school board concluded that neighbourhood development was not their priority.

“I have a real hard time supporting any of this, because I haven’t seen anything different,” said Bell.

Rule answered that the primary objectives was to make the neighbourhoods complete. Acquire sites, get on with neighbourhood planning, and then convince the ministry to get schools built.

Robson said the city is approaching a point where it will have to put a moratorium on development – one councillor called it “The M Word” – until neighbourhood planning can be done.

“We’re going to come to the point where we have to stop building houses,” said Robson.