City tries to plan around schools

Nothing for years for Silver Valley, despite intent for four sites

Maple Ridge council is in the process of deciding what to do with three sites in Silver Valley, that will never see the schools they were supposed to have.

Lack of schools in the fastest growing neighbourhoods of Maple Ridge was the sore spot, as city hall reviewed its Official Community Plan this week.

Silver Valley originally was planned to have four elementary schools, one each in Blaney Bog, River Village, Forest and Horse Hamlet, under the 2001 Silver Valley Area Plan. As well, a secondary school was envisaged.

Schools were to be the central node, and a “civic heart” in each neighbourhood. But municipal planners can’t force School District 42 or the provincial government to build new schools.

The school district is nearing the end of a facilities review which will be completed in October, but the city’s planning department already knows that the Albion and Silver Valley neighbourhoods will not be getting all the schools the city planned.

Planning director Christine Carter told council the province provides funding for new school construction, but Victoria is reluctant to pay for new schools if a district still has classroom capacity. The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District 42 still has room for 500 students in its schools, and will until 2020.

Carter said the lack of schools has affected development applications, and creates uncertainty for developers and property owners in Silver Valley and Albion. But she noted the city must identify existing and future schools in its OCP according to the Local  Government Act.

The message didn’t sit well with most councillors.

“Having a community where you can’t walk to school, where you can’t walk to a park, there’s no transit – those are the issues,” said Coun. Corisa Bell.

She said elementary aged students should be able to walk to school, and afterward play with neighbourhood kids who they know from class. It creates cohesive schools and communities, she said.

Bell said school board chair Mike Murray promised to consult with the city, but she doesn’t feel they have been adequately involved in school planning.

“We absolutely have not been involved,” Bell said. “We really need the school board to show up, and have these development discussions. Not a lot of people are happy with the school board right now.”

School district staff released the first phase of its facilities plan in April 2014, showing minor increases in enrolment in 2016 through 2023. The report acknowledges that its 20 elementary schools are not in the right location for future residents.

Silver Valley in total requires a school for 550 students. The Horse and Forest Hamlet school sites can be eliminated, and no secondary school is required, Carter told council. Even one elementary school in Silver Valley is years away.

However, in the short term, a school site in Albion is the district’s top priority, and land is already owned on 104th Avenue. The district needs to acquire one additional site in the area to accommodate 550 students, and said a site at 108th and 248th would suffice.

Carter said schools were integral parts of the Silver Valley hamlets, and the city must now find uses to ensure the hamlets have a “civic heart.” She contacted Civitas, the consulting group that helped design the plan.

“They did not feel that all is lost,” noted Carter.

Other civic uses such as daycare centres, fire halls, libraries, bus stops and police centres council create the civic heart, said the consultants.

Coun. Bob Masse was not optimistic that such facilities will create the same community feel as a neighbourhood school.

“Daycare centres … they hardly replace, in my opinion, a school and a community centre.”

He said the Silver Valley plan was well done, but the small neighbourhood schools envisioned are no longer being built by the education ministry.

“They’re very nice plans, and I think it was realistic in the day,” he said, but added the lack of school sites “has really changed the OCP.”

He said parents in Albion and Silver Valley will be driving their kids across town to get to school, because busing will be eliminated after this year.

“It’s a big problem and there’s no easy solution.”

Mayor Nicole Read said she hears public complaints about school catchment areas and the lack of busing. She too was not happy with council’s lack of involvement in the facilities review.

“What happens if we don’t feel that plan is going to get us, or our citizens, where we need to be?” she asked. “What happens if council is in strong disagreement?

The school district said it met with the councils of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows in April at the beginning of the public consultation process. That process also included a workshop with advisory committees and partner groups, an online survey, and a public open house in June, and spokesperson Irena Pochop said the board has been “very happy with the level of public engagement.”w

She said a new school in eastern Maple Ridge has been a priority “for quite a few years now,” and that the facilities review process “should strengthen our case for a new school in this area.”