Sooke school district studies possible sites for new schools

The Sooke school district has identified Colwood/Royal Bay, south Langford, Latoria, West Shore Parkway/Westhills and Bear Mountain as possible locations for new schools.

District officials announced in October they were considering buying land for up to four new schools in response to expectations that enrolment will grow by about 1,800 students over the next five years.

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“It’s very unique … to be so aggressively looking for land,” district superintendent Jim Cambridge said. “We’re setting a goal in our strategic plan to ensure that there’s learning spaces for the next decade or two, so that work needs to happen right now.”

He said purchase agreements are being signed, with any deals hinging on provincial funding.

The process has the district working out a deal, then going to the provincial government for approval.

Possible sites stem from a request for proposals issued in October by Colliers International, the district’s real-estate adviser. That request called for a closing date of March 15 for sales, while another notice will consider further purchase possibilities

“That will go into future years,” Cambridge said. “There’s no end date on it.”

The district’s need for more facilities is tied to population growth and the pace of residential construction. It comes at a time when some other districts in B.C. are closing schools due to declining enrolment.

Sooke has about 9,200 students after growing by approximately 520 in September. Greater Victoria school district enrolment rose by about 185 in September while the Saanich district has had slight increases over the past two years.

The Sooke district’s Royal Bay Secondary, opened in 2015, has already had four portable classrooms added to it, the result of enrolment jumping from about 800 in 2015-16 to more than 900 in the current school year.

Stephanie Longstaff, a long-time member of the Sooke Parents’ Education Advisory Council, said it is a case of “the sooner the better” in the search for more school sites.

“All they can do is keep looking and building as fast as the government will let them build,” she said. “I think they’ve got to just keep going full-steam ahead.”

Cambridge said the district has settled on its priorities.

“We’re looking for three elementary schools in the West Shore area and a middle school,” he said.

Cambridge added that, eventually, one more elementary and secondary school will be needed.

Until construction is completed, space issues are being met with a “temporary accommodation plan.” That plan could include altering catchment areas to increase enrolment at schools that are below capacity.

“We need to consult with our community if we do that,” Cambridge said. “Obviously, it impacts families and parents.”

Assessing the need for more portable classrooms is also part of the plan.

Cambridge said many factors are considered in selecting a school site.

“The biggest one is whether we can make the school walkable for most students who are going to attend. … It’s expensive to bus kids, and any time we can get them walking to school it is a good thing.”

Prices for school sites can vary widely throughout the district, Cambridge said.

“It depends on where it’s zoned and whether there are covenants or restrictions on the land or whether it’s free title. All of that impacts purchase price — whether it’s close to a busy street, how close it is to a residential area.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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