New Westminster schools in limbo

While some communities in B.C. are facing the prospect of school closures, the story is different in New Westminster.

School District No. 40 wants to replace the Metro Vancouver suburb’s aging high school as part of a provincially funded three-school construction project with a cost the board chair says could exceed $100 million.

The school board has been eyeing a site that’s occupied by the existing New Westminster Secondary School, as well as the school-district-owned Massey Theatre and the city’s Mercer Stadium.

With a shortage of unused space on the site, as well as confirmation in recent years of the existence of a cemetery at that location that was never decommissioned, the board has been grappling with where exactly it can build the replacement school.

For parents, the delay has caused frustration and uncertainty, Mary Ann McKenzie, chair of New Westminster secondary school’s parent advisory council, told the Georgia Straight by phone.

“It’s all happening behind closed doors, which really adds to the frustration that the parents feel.”¦It seems like we go one step forward and then slide three steps back continually,” McKenzie said.

School-district staff have been meeting with City of New Westminster staff to discuss the location for the replacement high school, but little information has been shared publicly.

McKenzie, who has two children enrolled at the school, said the project has been inching forward for a decade.

“It’s been miserable,” she said. “And with the current parents, there’s a sense of resignation that all our children will graduate from the old school and there’s nothing we can do about it, which is really unfortunate.”

The school district’s capital project also calls for the construction of a replacement elementary school and a new middle school elsewhere in the city. But those building projects hinge on the district first finding a spot for the new high school.

New Westminster school board chair James Janzen told the Straight by phone that replacing the existing high school, which opened in the late 1940s, is crucial.

“People are impatient, and I don’t blame them. Obviously, it’s been a long time. People would like a solution,” he said.

Janzen declined to provide details or a time line regarding the potential locations for the replacement high school because, he said, the matter is under discussion with the city.

“I’m hopeful that we’re nearing the end of the beginning and that we’ll soon be able to get on with going out to the public,” he said. “When it’s time, we’ll have a public process about the options.”

In March, students and parents held a rally in front of New Westminster City Hall to highlight the need for a new high school, McKenzie said. However, they did not get the response they wanted.

“There’s been just nothing but silence,” she said. “We had a rally in front of city. That was a month ago. There’s been nothing since then.”

While parents are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the issue, McKenzie added, it is important to continue pressing for progress.

She maintained that the responsibility for moving ahead on the project now lies with the school district and the city. “The big thing is that some kind of painful decision has to be made and no one’s willing to risk making it,” she said.

Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and New Westminster mayor Wayne Wright couldn’t be reached for comment on this issue by deadline.