By Trevor Busch and Nikki Jamieson
Seeking input from the public on some of the problems surrounding the D.A. Ferguson Middle School and W.R. Myers High School partial modernization project, Horizon School Division held an open house on the issue earlier this month.
Individuals that attended were given the opportunity to voice their opinions to members of the Horizon School Division board of trustees, and to give written or verbal feedback on some of the options presented for the modernization. About 40 people attended the open house.
“The board wanted to have an opportunity to engage with people, and to listen, and to give people the chance to ask questions of the trustees,” said Supt. Wilco Tymensen in his initial address at the open house.
According to documents provided at the open house that was hosted at Central School on Dec. 12, Alberta Education guidelines for the draft design of the partial modernization of D.A. Ferguson Middle School and W.R. Myers High School indicate the complex will move from the current 52 spaces to 43 for the 35 teachers currently working.
The guidelines also mandate that the partial modernization must focus on D.A. Ferguson, while the 1949 addition as part of the W.R. Myers High School complex must be demolished due to issues related to its construction. The three-story portion is constructed out of lumber, and is currently not to building code. A second partial modernization focusing on W.R. Myers is expected at some point in the future. Currently, the draft design is $1.1 million over budget.
“It was realized there was some building code issues, and they quickly realized that the budget that was announced by the government was inadequate to address some of those building code issues,” continued Tymensen. “At that point, things kind of came to halt, Alberta Education and Alberta Infrastructure went back to the problem to look at some issues and figure out how to solve this.”
One of the key concerns voiced at the open house pertained to the proposition to move Grade 6 students currently attending D.A. Ferguson back into Taber elementary schools, as well as perceived issues surrounding quality of education being maintained in both schools in a complex that would be significantly reduced in size.
At this time, 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 1949 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.
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.
Although a case could be made for keeping the 1949 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 — it will still have more space than needed.
“In August, they announced an extra couple million dollars for the project to address some of those (code) issues,” said Tymensen. “At that point as well, one of the issues that they talked about was that in order to be able to move forward, and to acquire those funds, the three-storey building is going to be coming down. Certainly that was not expected up front.”
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.
“You have to recognize when you’re dealing with a government that has $10 to $15 billion in deficits, they’re making some tough decisions around finances, and making some difficult decisions about where things are at,” said Tymensen. “So one thing that they always look at is let’s not have huge buildings that our taxpayers in the province are supporting, that are empty, or half empty. So one of the things that they always look at when they modernize buildings is let’s make the building the right size for the kids.”
With costs mounting, the board has to decide if they wish to continue with the project or cancel it outright. Should the board choose to walk away from the project, in the next few years, D.A. and Myers will still 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 would also potentially lose $9 million worth of improvements, and the area would lose an opportunity for employment.
However, should the board choose to move 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 the 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.
“We’re sitting at around 30 per cent of the design process is finished, and we’re sitting at about a million dollars overbudget currently,” said Tymensen.
Under the original timeline — which is now in limbo — work was to commence on the project by summer 2017 and was expected to take over a year to complete. Following this, the three-storey 1949 section was scheduled to be demolished in summer 2019.
“That’s kind of the timeline. We know because of the issues that we’ve encountered, some of the roadblocks, we’re at least four to five, maybe six months behind schedule in terms of this schedule moving forward,” said Tymensen.
The feedback for the open house was brought up during the Dec. 20 board meeting. After meeting with staff and hosting the open house on the school configuration, the consensus on the feedback was to leave the school’s configuration the way it is, keeping the two administrations and grades where they are, while moving forward with the modernization as planned.
“Most of the evening I think was talked about, was what the configuration was going to be. Not too much was said about the 1.1 – there was a little bit, but not much,” said Bruce Francis, board member. “The 1949 wing of the high school will come down at the end of phase one. We will be applying phase two on our capital projects goal, or plan, but we don’t know when that will happen. But we’ll move forward with the plan of leaving the way it is, and the next thing the board has in front of them is to try to figure out how to meet that financial $1.1 deficit, within the scope.”
Alberta Education and Alberta Infrastructure had not yet been informed, at the time of the meeting, of the decision or feedback, as administration had been waiting to hear back from the board.
Even when the 1949 wing comes down, Myers staff will still have enough teaching space for all its teachers. Although they would be snugger, since they are use to more space, they will still have enough space and would not be at capacity. Additionally, it would not cost them any more money to keep the configuration of the schools the same, as moving the grade sixes out, or reconfiguring the schools, would result in minimal, if any, savings.
“This is not the first school, at the 30 per cent phase, is over budget,” said Tymensen to the board, adding that both Barnwell and Warner schools modernizations had similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale, on exceeding budgets at the 30 per cent phase. “What’s important to recognize though, is that at a 30 per cent drawing phase is they add about — correct me if I’m wrong — but it’s pretty much 20 per cent contingency at this phase.
“Because there’s so many unknowns, and as you know with our conversation with Warner, once you open up the wall, all of a sudden you realize the support pillars might be missing.”
As they progress to the 60 per cent and 90 per cent phases, once walls are opened up and mechanical work is done, they will see more realistic numbers in terms of budget. Costs saving may also be discovered as the budget moves towards completion.