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Board trustees argue over wish list for new schools in Simcoe County

Board endorsed list of five projects, including addition at Ardagh Bluffs Elementary School in Barrie and new elementary school in Angus
2020-10-02 Ardagh Bluffs school RB 2
Ardagh Bluffs Public School is located on Summerset Drive in Barrie's south end. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday files

A fast-tracked, top-five wish list for new schools in Simcoe County to be sent to the province with the school board's endorsement will not include a high school for Wasaga Beach or a replacement for Collingwood's public high school. 

That's despite the efforts of the local trustee to push for both projects to be included. 

Earlier this month, Ontario’s Ministry of Education made a surprise announcement to school boards that they would be accepting new business cases for capital priorities in 2022-23, with around $500 million again up for grabs.

The catch? They could only submit five priorities instead of the usual 10, and two of them had to be new cases never before seen by the ministry. Boards were given two weeks to get their business cases in order.

During the Simcoe County District School Board's regular meeting on Wednesday night, board staff presented their top-five list to trustees for approval ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline for submission.

And this year’s top-five list came with some controversy.

“This request is challenging, since the board’s annual accommodation plan had not been released. It was originally planned to come to (trustees) in March, although we’ve now delayed it to April due to these developments,” said superintendent of business and facility services Corry Van Nispen.

According to the staff report considered by trustees last night, the capital projects being put forward to the Ministry of Education for 2022-23 funding are:

  1. New Angus elementary school
  2. New Alliston elementary school
  3. New Bradford secondary school 
  4. Nantyr Shores Secondary School addition 
  5. Ardagh Bluffs Public School addition

Short-listed projects that didn’t make the final list included a Collingwood Collegiate Institute (CCI) replacement school, a Wasaga Beach secondary school, Coldwater Public School addition, a new Alcona elementary school with child care, three new south-end Barrie elementary school projects, and a new Tottenham elementary school.

While the CCI replacement school was included because of the aging building, the remaining schools on the list were proposed to accommodate growth in the region. 

Orillia/Ramara/Severn trustee and chair Jodi Lloyd asked staff why the Collingwood and Wasaga Beach projects were not put in the top-five this time around.

“A lot of work, analysis and debate went into making these recommendations. We kept going back to, what is the ministry direction?” said Van Nispen.

According to the Ministry of Education, there were three criteria to be taken into account for this round of funding: accommodation pressure, school consolidation/facility condition and French-language accommodation.

Van Nispen said the Wasaga Beach secondary school project and the Collingwood project didn’t yet meet those criteria.

“We are seeing populations that are going to need to be accommodated. The timeline we’re seeing for that, though, is farther out,” said Van Nispen. “In the case of Wasaga Beach, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ We’re not quite there yet by the criteria that’s in place right now.”

Van Nispen said the board anticipates the growth need to really hit Wasaga Beach in 2029-30, and will be preparing business cases for future years to have target opening dates for schools in Collingwood and Wasaga Beach to align with that timeline.

He added that the ministry still gets to see the entire list beyond the top-five, so they will be aware that the need in the area is coming.

Collingwood/Wasaga Beach trustee Tanya Snell spoke about growth numbers expected in the southern Georgian Bay area.

“Now that Banting (in Alliston) has been funded, we need to address our next oldest (secondary) school, CCI,” said Snell.

Snell pointed out that Banting Memorial High School was on the capital priorities list seven times before the ministry chose the project for funding.

Overall, Snell spoke to the need to add a Wasaga Beach secondary school to the top-five list. She tabled an amendment to remove Ardagh Bluffs from the list and to add a Wasaga Beach secondary school in its place.

“It is my hope that we can move the needle forward tonight and get out of this stuck-in-the-mud position that we find ourselves in for this area,” she said.

Innisfil trustee Donna Armstrong pointed out that the growth data provided by the school board and growth data from the municipalities seem to conflict, and asked which set of data the ministry would be using to inform its decision.

“The school board is using student-based data and current enrolment data and projections,” said Van Nispen.

Adjala-Tosorontio/Clearview/CFB Borden/Essa trustee Robert North said he was “gobsmacked” that the amendment had been put on the floor.

“I’ve been on this board since 2003 and during that time, we’ve collected capital funding for hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “(Staff) have built up a reputation with the ministry as an organization that goes by the rules, pays attention to details, avoids politics regardless of who is in power and is fiscally responsible.

“To put this amendment forward and have it pass undermines at least 20 years of work. It would send a message to the capital branch that we didn’t understand the assignment, we don’t care what they want even though they hold the purse strings,” North added. “We have people around this table that are caught up in municipal election time. This puts all of our projects in jeopardy.”

Snell said pushing for a high school in Wasaga Beach has nothing to do with the municipal election.

“It has nothing to do with posturing, campaigning or anything of the sort,” she said. “Any suggestion of that is insulting, frankly.”

The amendment was defeated by trustees by a vote of 9-3 with Snell, Barrie trustee Beth Mouratidis and New Tecumseth trustee Sarah Beitz in favour.

Bradford West Gwillimbury trustee Debbie Connors expressed concern that the Bradford secondary school wasn’t higher on the list.

“It takes between four and five years to build a school and we’re going to be able to fill that school by the time it’s built,” she said.

Van Nispen said the challenge is that the two elementary schools ahead of Bradford – Angus and Alliston – both have a school’s worth of students in portables today.

In Angus, public elementary schools are currently over capacity by 440 students and have 21 portables combined. In Alliston, elementary schools are over capacity by 414 students, with 19 portables combined.

Connors said that elementary schools are a different situation than secondary, as students in elementary largely stay in one classroom all day, whereas secondary students switch classrooms throughout the day.

The opinion was echoed by Beitz.

“It’s too bad we can’t have two lists: one for secondary and one for elementary,” she said.

Lloyd said the challenge is that school boards went through three years of no capital project funding announcements, which has put all boards significantly behind in terms of growth pressures.

“Schools have historically been funded based on students, not on growth,” she said. “There are four publicly funded education systems, so all the growth doesn’t come to us.”

On April 28, 2021, the trustees approved its capital priority list for 2021-22 funding, which was forward to the Ministry of Education.

Those priorities were:

  1. Banting Memorial High School (replacement school)
  2. Killarney Beach Public School (addition)
  3. New Angus elementary school (growth accommodation)
  4. New Alcona elementary school (growth accommodation)
  5. New Alliston elementary school (growth Accommodation)
  6. New Barrie #1 Southwest elementary school (growth accommodation)
  7. New Barrie #1 Southeast elementary school (growth accommodation)
  8. New Bradford secondary school (growth accommodation)
  9. New Orillia elementary school (growth accommodation)
  10. Northwest Simcoe secondary schools (growth accommodation)

Through a series of announcements in late 2021 and early 2022, the ministry granted funding approval for the Banting Memorial High School replacement, Killarney Beach Public School addition and a new Orillia elementary school. The ministry also announced funding approval for a child-care renovation at Tecumseth Beeton Elementary School.

In total, those projects amounted to approximately $58.8 million in funding for that cycle.

On Wednesday night, trustees voted unanimously in favour of approving the top-five list as presented by board staff. The ministry is expected to make announcement regarding which projects will be funded ahead of the June 2022 election.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 15 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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