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D.A. Ferguson/W.R. Myers school modernization hits a snag

Posted on December 7, 2016 by Taber Times

By Nikki Jamieson
Taber Times
njamieson@tabertimes.com

Editor’s Note: The following story was published in the Dec. 7 print edition of The Taber Times with an incorrect date for a public forum on the modernization issues. The correct date is Monday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. at Central Elementary School. The Times apologizes for any confusion.

With building code issues popping up with the D.A Ferguson and W.R. Myers schools modernization, the Horizon School Board is seeking public input on how to proceed.

Stressing that nothing has been decided yet at a Nov. 29 meeting, the board discussed their options moving forward with the modernization, which has currently been put on hold.

“With D.A. Ferguson/ W.R. Myers complex modernization, it’s actually an Alberta Infrastructure project, and the funding is actually for partial modernization. So the design of the building has been focussing on D.A. Ferguson. In fact, when we looked on the approval we received, it was specifically focussing on the two story portion and the 1960 portion, which, if you walk in the front door of Myers, is everything to the left, which you would normally think of as D.A. Ferguson,” said Wilco Tymensen, superintendent for the Horizon School Division.

“There really is no phase to it at this point. There’s no timeline for phase two and there’s no money allocated to it for phase two.”

“Really, it is a partial modernization, and if we want to do the second half of the building, as a board you’ll have to submit that as your number one priority, we’d hope it would be a future approved project.”

The issue causing the delay lies on the Myers’ side of the building; the 1949 wing. The three-story portion of the Myers section is constructed out of lumber, and is currently not to building code. Although the modernization is focussed on the D.A. side, the moment they start the renovations, they have to do something about the 1949 wing as well.

“The funding was really for the new portion of the building, so there is a significant increase in cost. Alberta Ed did increase the budget somewhat, to deal with the demolition and to deal with sprinkling the entire building, but in order for that to happen, the three-story has to come down, according to Alberta Education and Alberta Infrastructure.”

As this is an Alberta Infrastructure project, the school board is not in charge of handling the renovations, although they do provide input. Alberta Infrastructure had increased the budget to allow for the demolition of the wing, something staff at Myers are a bit leery about, for it would mean less teaching space.

Currently, Myers has 26 teachers working out of 17 classrooms and 19 special rooms — such as computer labs, art and band rooms — for a total of 36 learning spaces. With the demolition of the ’49 wing and subsequent reworking of classroom space, the current, unfinalized blueprints have 14 classrooms and 14 special rooms for a total of 28 learning spaces in Myers.

By comparison, D.A. currently has 15 teachers working out of 11 classrooms and nine special rooms, and in the redesign retains the same number of classrooms and loses only one special room for learning.

According to Tymensen, the staff at D.A. and Myers both recognize the positives or negatives of the modernization for each other, and have similar concerns about windows and space and storage. With the reduction of space, there is also the issue of whether or not the schools have enough space to meet the educational needs of their students. Their feedback, adding that they are committed to working with the board to find a solution, included focussing on the non-negotiables, or things the schools really need; getting more money through grants or other areas in the budget; loose things to keep the current configuration of the school; and not rushing decisions for fear of not enough space.

Although the case can be made for keeping the ’49 wing, as it provides the Myers side with additional classrooms, it would cost about $1 million to upgrade the wing to today’s building standards. Additionally, according to Alberta Education statistics, the building has more instructional space than needed. A school of 850 students should be about 7,200 square metres of space, with 4,874 square metres being instructional space. D.A. and Myers have 740 students, and currently spans 12,300 square metres. Although under the redesign it will be going down to 9,500 square metres — 5,030 square metres of which will be instructional — that will still have more space than needed.

“The big issue though, is that there is a lot of inefficient use of space in this building. It’s got a larger library than what you would normally have, it’s got a significantly larger shop than what you would normally have, that’s really a poor utilization in terms of student numbers,” said Tymensen. “Alberta Ed would say a new school, their objective is 100 per cent capacity, so use them to their capacity.”

Alberta Education considers a school as full when it reaches a utilization rate of 100 per cent. D.A. and Myers currently have a utilization rate of 63 per cent, and under the redesign, it will go to 84 per cent. Many schools in places such as Calgary often open with utilization rates of 150 per cent. The average utilization rate for all the schools in Taber — which feed into D.A. and Myers — is 69 per cent, and after the modernization it will be 78 per cent.

“Albert Ed tries to aim for — they recognize when you modernize, there’s inefficiency space — so they try to aim for 85 per cent.”

Currently, the project is over budget by about $1.1 million. As no work on the schools has been done yet, at this point in time, Tymensen says the board has two potential options; cancel the project or forge ahead with it, with the former option not being very desirable.

Should the board try to cancel the budget, in the next few years, D.A. and Myers will need about $1.2 million in Infrastructure Maintenance and Renewal (IMR) and a further $5 million would be needed over the next five years. The building will lose $9 million worth of improvements as well, and the area will lose an opportunity for employment. As this is a government project — and not the division’s — there is the risk that they cannot cancel the project, and there is existing contracts for it, so money may be lost.

However, should they go forward with the project, they still have a few options at their disposal: work within the scope of the budget; reconfigure schools, such as moving grade 6 D.A. students back into elementary schools; combine D.A. and Myers into one school; and/or utilize IMR funds — for which their yearly budget is about $25,000 — and their reserves for additions to make it work.

“What it all boils down to, is that you got to think of what’s best for the students,” said Marie Logan, chair of the board. “You got to have some support, you’ve got to do what’s best for the students.”

Should they go forward with the modernization, some of the benefits would include upgrading electrical, new shelving, new roof on half the building, upgrading the ventilation/heating system, address Internet connectivity access, new drop-off point for D.A. students, changing the front entrance to Myers so it doesn’t remind anyone of the “1999 incident” and bringing the entire building to code, making it safer for everyone.

“It certainly takes advantage of government funding, instead of our funding.”

Nothing has been decided yet, in terms of the modernization design or what to do with the schools. Although board members tossed around a few ideas — such as not building a new cafeteria and using the money to construct an additional two classroom spaces on the south east corner of the school and using division funds for a new band room — no final decision on the design or placement of students has been made yet.

However, no matter what the decision is, Tymensen voiced his displeasure at the notion that some in the schools had voiced, that sending the grade six students back to elementary or combining the two schools would somehow diminish the learning culture.

“If their comment becomes, ‘We’re going to lose who we are, we’re going to lose our philosophy about making sure kids are successful’, I’m going to go, well if you do, I’m going to have a serious issue with you a) as a leader, and b) as a teacher, because if you lost one grade and you lost one administration, now suddenly it’s ok for kids to fail?” said Tymensen. “It’s not acceptable in our K-12 schools, why would it be acceptable in a 7-12?”

“Some of the parent’s I’ve talked to, they think the students can re-adjust quickly, they don’t have any problem with that,” said Rick Anderson, board member. “But to the teachers and the general public, they have a little bit of trouble re-adjusting to this idea.”

“When they switched to grade 6, 7, 8 and 9, parents were furious. They did not want to send their little grade sixers over to that school. And now, I was surprised, when we got responses on Thursday night, and they were furious about keeping them in an elementary school,” said Bruce Francis, board member, commenting how he could see how some might be upset at the change but noting that grade 6 students were originally in elementary school.

The HSD will be hosting a forum on Monday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. at the Central Elementary School to discuss options and get feedback from parents on the modernization design.

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