Liberal Education critic Jim Bennett
The Eastern School District has agreed to pay more than $1 million per year for office space in downtown
St. John’s until 2016 — despite the fact the school board will cease to exist in two months.
An order-in-council posted on the provincial government’s website indicates the Eastern School District will lease 22, 646 square feet in Atlantic Place at $48.11 per square foot.
Ken Morrissey, spokesman for the school board, said it actually negotiated a slightly cheaper rate — $46.11 per square foot — but that still works out to more than $1 million per year before HST.
The new lease runs until the end of May 2016. It was approved by cabinet June 16.
Morrissey said the office space was not put out to public tender.
“We did actually consult with a real estate company to, I guess, assess market conditions and look for other possible sites,” he said. “Through that it was determined that we wouldn’t be able to find a space that was suitable for our requirements, and then we didn’t actually go to tender. We do feel that, while there was no tender, we did due diligence while looking through this.”
Morrissey said the rental rate doesn’t involve upgrades or renovations to the office space.
According to a late-2012 presentation by commercial real estate services company Colliers International, the average net rent for Class A office space in
St. John’s is $20.50 per square foot. Average Class B office space is listed at $16.64 per square foot.
Liberal Education critic Jim Bennett was shocked when he saw the government order authorizing the rental.
“Good grief, that’s a lot of money,” Bennett said. “Don’t they have more property? Don’t we have vacant schools that could be refurbished or rented?”
Bennett said he can’t think of any reason why the school board would need offices downtown in some of the province’s most expensive space.
Further confounding the situation is the fact the Eastern School District will fold in September as part of the provincial government’s plan to amalgamate the province’s four English-language school boards into one mega-board. The government’s primary justification for that to save money.
An emailed statement from Lorne Wheeler, chairman of the transition team that’s amalgamating the school boards, said that he wasn’t consulted on the new lease.
“The transition committee was not involved in the discussion or decision to extend the lease of Atlantic Place, as it is the responsibility of the Eastern School District,” Wheeler said.
Morrissey said there are reasons why the school board offices need to stay in Atlantic Place, even after the school districts are amalgamated into a mega-board.
He said the primary reason is the computer equipment housed in the building, which serves the entire school board region.
“We basically run all our IT infrastructure out of here, so we have server rooms, data centres and cooling systems that operate for all of that that operate here, so we would need to find another place to move that that would be adequate,” Morrissey said.
“Some other locations we looked at did not have those.”
Bennett doesn’t buy it; he said somewhere other than downtown would be cheaper and better.
“It’d be much easier for people to get there; parking would be free or cheap. The real estate is low-cost. There must be land on the outskirts of the city and buildings that could be occupied,” Bennett said. “Why are we renting 22,000 square feet — that’s over half an acre of office space — for three years? We’re going to tie this new board, the English board, by a decision made by Eastern School District.”
Education Minister Clyde Jackman was in Nunavut for meetings this week, and was unable to be reached for comment.
St. John’s North New Democrat MHA Dale Kirby can empathize with the school board’s office space challenges. He said when he was elected in 2011, he wanted to set up a constituency office in his district to be accessible to residents, but because real estate was prohibitively expensive, he decided to take office space in Confederation Building instead.
As for the cost-efficiency of amalgamating the school boards, Kirby said it will only be possible to assess that years from now, after it’s all said and done.
“It’s really hard to pass any judgment right now with respect to the cost, because what we would really have to have is the final, total cost of the supersized school district, and to line that up against the costs of the four prior English boards,” he said.
“It’ll take a while for all of this to work its way through, and we can give it a full assessment then.”
Kirby said the NDP is committed to reversing the government’s plans to amalgamate school boards, but he doesn’t have a problem with the three-year lease agreement. He said he envisions that when the NDP is elected in 2015, it’ll take a year or so to reverse the decision, which takes you into 2016.
“We won’t be able to wave a magic wand and undo what this government has so wrong-headedly gone forward with,” he said. “When we have an opportunity to bring school governance back to the local level, it will take some time, and maybe up to the best part of a year to restore local democratic decision-making through regional boards, and that is our intention.”