St. Bernard’s has already had four extensions since 2004, with precious little space available on the property.
That’s because they say their kids will return to schools that are hugely over-populated and ill-equipped to accommodate so many students.
“I’m angry and heartbroken for our children,” said Susan Stamp, a member of the Mobile Central High School system council whose children attend St. Bernard’s Elementary in Witless Bay.
“Knowing it’s just a matter of time before our children lose their library, cafeteria, music room for the foreseeable future? These are basics. We just need enough space for our children to grow and learn.
“I am excited and happy to see other students in the province benefit from state-of-the-art facilities, but it’s really hard knowing our children don’t even have the necessary number of washrooms in their school. It’s very sad.”
Stamp is one of hundreds of parents who have been rallying for years for a new middle school, which they insist is desperately needed in a region that, according to a 2016 Canada census report, is the fastest-growing part of the province.
With St. Bernard’s (grades K-6) in Witless Bay serving a student population of 354 and Mobile Central High School (grades 7-12) accommodating 254 students, they say their schools are busting at the seams, with little help from the Liberal government.
Despite several rallies throughout the year — at the Confederation Building and outside the schools — and a meeting with Education Minister Dale Kirby, they say the government is dismissing their concerns.
“It’s just so frustrating to know the evidence and the facts are staring him in the face, yet he chooses to ignore it all,” Stamp said earlier this week, standing outside the Mobile school with fellow council member Leslie-Anne Corrigan — two of more than 700 people in the Concerned Parents group.
“We’re being overlooked because we’re just another parent group who wants a new school. It’s much more than that. We are way over capacity.”
Step inside the school, they say, and the evidence is all around.
School counsellors and instructional resource teachers work out of converted closets; public-health nurses can’t conduct hearing tests because there is no quiet space left in the building; equipment is being stored on the stage and in the showers of the gym washrooms; and students have to work in hallways during certain activities.
“It’s kids who have exceptionalities that I really feel for,” Stamp said. “They get overlooked because there’s nowhere to put them.”
Not much room to grow
St. Bernard’s has already had four extensions in the last three years, with precious little space available on the property.
A new middle school had been approved for the community by the previous government.
In 2014, the Progressive Conservatives funded a $200,000 review of the school system in the region. With a recommendation in the BAE Newplan report to build a new middle school in the area, rather than further extensions, it was approved in the 2015 budget. A total of $24,000 was also spent on a site-selection study.
But when the Liberals came into power in late 2015, that plan was scrapped.
“They completely rendered that study useless and moot. It all went in the garbage.”
Instead, the Liberal government has chosen to build an extension on the Mobile school, which the group says will cause a series of other problems.
With a projected cost of $7 million, it’s expected to add nine classrooms — three each for Grade 6s (who will move from St. Bernard’s), junior high and high school, along with a computer lab.
The group says that may alleviate some issues temporarily, but in three years’ time, based on enrolment projections, the school will once again be too small.
“It’s ridiculous,” Corrigan said, looking over the site. “It’s planning to fail.”
There’s also a major issue with the land next to the building. The group said the extension has to squeeze into a small area, which will require water lines and a transformer to be moved.
It will also cause major traffic headaches and a loss of nine parking spaces in a lot that’s already 20 short, with enrolment expected to double within nine years, they say. Since the septic pipes run underneath the soccer field, the school’s only recreation space, that land cannot be touched.
“You can’t knit space,” said Corrigan, who said more and more subdivisions with young families are springing up in the region. “There is nowhere else.”
Health and safety
Adding to the problems, health inspectors recently declared the water unsafe for drinking, given the well’s proximity to the graveyard. The parents group says the government hasn’t indicated otherwise, which means students and school staff will have to use bottled water when school opens this year.
And with excavation comes the possibility of caskets being unearthed, they said.
The parents group also says fire and emergency access to the rear of the building is being removed and won’t be replaced once the extension is built.
According to information the group obtained during a meeting with officials from the Transportation and Works Department in May, the project was then about eight months behind schedule and 30 per cent over budget.
Corrigan said the extension is projected to be 50 per cent over budget before it’s complete.
“So, for all that work and for a few extra million dollars, they could build a new school,” she said.
Parents cite lack of government support
They say the education minister is exaggerating the cost of a new middle school — $28 million.
Gander’s new middle school is bigger than the one they need and it cost $17.5 million, the parents say.
“Even if you add a few million, that’s nowhere near what (Kirby) said,” Corrigan added.
She said the Newfoundland and Labrador Eastern School District has also recommended a new middle school, but Kirby has continued to ignore that.
Kirby opted not to speak to The Telegram when contacted earlier this week. A statement released by the Education Department said, “While it is recognized that additional school capacity is required for the Mobile Central High school system, based on analysis on projections provided by the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency, a more practical and cost-effective solution was warranted.”
Stamp and Corrigan anticipated the response, saying they had it figured out almost word for word before it was received.
“Oh, we’ve heard it all before,” Corrigan said.
They said before she resigned from cabinet, then finance minister Cathy Bennett was the only one in the Liberal government who seemed genuinely interested in the group’s concerns. The region’s MHA is PC Keith Hutchings. Current Finance Minister Tom Osborne, they said, has washed his hands of it, telling the group it’s Kirby’s decision.
“I think for me, the most frustrating thing is hearing Dale Kirby’s own words in 2014. He stood up in the House of Assembly, over and over again, and argued against the PC government’s inaccurate projections to build schools that were too small and accusing them of being shortsighted, and here he is, the Liberal minister, and he’s doing the exact same thing. His own words can be thrown right back at him. Why is he using inaccurate projections?”
While Kirby has publicly accused the group of cherry-picking numbers, they say it’s Kirby who is doing that. They say the department is using statistics that are not reflective of growing enrolments in the area.
“The Liberals just announced billions of dollars in infrastructure spending and for the fastest-growing region in the province, they can’t come up with an extra $4 million or $5 million to build a school?” Corrigan said.
“What better thing to invest in than education? You can have all these entrepreneurs start businesses here, but they’re not going to stay if their children are in over-populated schools.”