It seems only yesterday that half-empty schools were closing and worried parents were advocating for their local elementary to escape the axe. Today, school boards can’t build schools big enough or fast enough to keep up with the demand. Crews are once more sawing and hammering on new portable classrooms to hold the overflow.
Parents in the West Shore got some good news last week when the province chipped in $23.3 million to buy 6.5 hectares (16 acres) of land for an elementary and a middle school in the Westhills development.
The new buildings are sorely needed.
The Sooke School District, holding onto its title as the fastest-growing district in the province, expects 1,800 more students over the next five years.
Royal Bay Secondary School in Colwood famously had to bring in portables not long after it opened. Dunsmuir Middle School and Spencer Middle School have 20 portables between them.
The new schools will be able to hold a total of 1,000 students, about as many as are using those 20 portables. More schools are needed, and Sooke school board chairman Ravi Parmar said more land purchases are in the works in other parts of Langford. The province is looking at plans to expand Royal Bay.
Buying the land is just the first step. The district will need more money from the province to build the schools.
Ordinarily, it takes four years to build a new school, but Langford is known for its ability to get construction projects moving quickly, so that should speed up the timeline. Still, teachers and students will have to suffer through the portable experience for a few more years.
The frenzy of building and the need for portables seem surreal in a region where schools have been shuttered. The Greater Victoria School District has closed seven schools over the past 15 years. Yet now, its own crews are building new portables.
It appears wasteful and damaging to neighbourhoods to close schools that are so central to their communities. And equally wasteful to build new schools when shuttered ones are still standing.
The problem, of course, is that neighbourhoods change, and the empty schools are too often in areas where children used to live. School planners are left chasing population bubbles around the district or into other districts, such as Sooke.
Even when they build, they might not build big enough. Education Minister Rob Fleming said he hopes to address some of the problems by changing the capital regulations for school construction so that rapidly growing districts aren’t stuck building schools such as Royal Bay that can’t handle the expanding population.
Pity the school districts that have to try to predict where the next wave will break. Will mounting house prices push young families even further outside the core? Will house prices fall, allowing families to move back into older neighbourhoods? Will birth rates rise or fall? What about immigration rates?
We almost need modular schools, with the ability to mothball sections of a school until they are needed or to easily add classrooms when enrolment mushrooms. If only we could put them on wheels and bring the classrooms to the students.
The pace and location of growth often seem to outrun planners’ ability to keep up. And if the past two decades have been unpredictable, the future promises to be even more so.
In the short term, however, we know the need is in the West Shore, and the provincial government says more schools are on the way.