Town frustrated with Province, School Division, as public school delay tensions rise

Above: Town of Morinville’s plan for the Sturgeon School Division / town lands for the junior high school concept presented to public Feb. 9.

by Tristan Turner

Speaking to a nearly packed chambers with parents who came seeking answers to concerns raised in a recent notice from Sturgeon School Division to parents and expressed in a letter to the editor from Parent Council Chair Sarah Hall; Town Council laid out where the Town stands with the recent Division announcement their Public Junior High project in Morinville is on hold.

The new Junior High school is also slated to have an adjacent high school built later and was expected to be built using a combination of Sturgeon School Division land, as well as Town Municipal Reserve land. This followed Sturgeon School Division’s requesting the site (behind the current Ray McDonald Sports Center), approved by Town Council last June.

Mayor airs frustrations; hopes for temporary school

Mayor Lisa Holmes reportedly cancelled an Ottawa trip to attend the council meeting, delivering a document that outlined all contact the Town has engaged with the school division and the Alberta Department of Education and highlighted “every member of council’s support for this school”.

The Town believes this is the only spot in Morinville where a school can be constructed under their authority, according to Mayor Holmes. Other potential sites could not be serviced fast enough to meet the required timelines, she said. In the case of the recently purchased 77 acres just to the East of town, Sturgeon County is the Municipal Authority responsible for zoning and awarding land to school districts, even land owned by another municipality. “This is the [site] that we have to deal with,” commented Mayor Holmes.

In an interview after the meeting, Holmes told reporters: “We have been working hard on this project for the last two years, and we will continue to work on it. We’re going directly to the Minister of Education to share our concerns because we feel that we can no longer work in a vacuum,” she said. “We have to start working with the government to get this school built, and we need to proactively start planning for what’s going to happen in September of 2017 because I don’t believe that it is realistic to believe that the school will be open [by then] even if we start construction today. So we need a plan for where these kids are going to go to school in the fall of 2017.”

Mayor Holmes mentioned multiple times the possibility of the Town working with the Sturgeon School Division to create a temporary school site made from modules provided by the province until they can get the project completed. Specifically in discussions with the Department of Infrastructure, the Town identified the potential for using modules that have been used in past crisis flood response. Holmes said this could “house children from grades 5-9” until a new school is complete.

Holmes further commented that bussing kids out of Morinville is unacceptable to the Town. “We are a town of 10,000 people; there is no reason that we should have to bus kids out of town to receive a public education,” she said. “Even the fact that that is being discussed is completely inappropriate.”

Many comments from Council

All councillors noted their support for the project, and for public schooling in Morinville generally at the meeting. Mayor Holmes stated that the Town worked significantly harder on this school project than the new Catholic school project, where they had only made contact with the Catholic board “maybe a couple of times”.

Deputy Mayor Rob Ladouceur commented: “We’ve been accused of not supporting public education, and at the end of the day I think all of us support education. It’s not about Catholic, public or any sort of other education; it’s about education as a whole. And I think that our Council has spoken very strongly about this in the past.”

Ladouceur continued: “This turned into a fight, and it doesn’t need to be that way. You can’t work when it turns into a fight and pointing fingers… It’s time that both sides play nice and sit down to get past this together.”

Councillor Nicole Boutestein took issue with some of the accusations towards Town and Town administration in this process. “Council and Administration has spent many hours in the past couple weeks researching, fact finding and bringing this all forward… I think it’s very important that we all know that there isn’t one person [on Council] that does not want a new school,” she said. “We are all 100 per cent behind it, and that’s why we’ve done the work that we’ve done. But I have to be honest. Rather than spending the last week and a half doing this, we could have been boots on the ground, trying to problem solve, rather than answering accusations… It could have been time better spent dealing with Sturgeon School Division, so we’re actually two weeks behind rather than two weeks ahead.”

Councillor Stephen Dafoe had questions for Director of Planning and Development with the Town, Greg Hofmann, about the potential school plan that Hofmann’s department sketched out for the School Division. The mock-up plan, which relies on the destruction of the Ray McDonald Sports Center (but not the curling rink) for access has been identified by the Mayor as “a plan that works”. Dafoe asked Hofmann to answer the concern that was raised that it would be placed too far from the roadway, and Hofmann stated in his opinion it was about as far from 104 Street as Morinville Community High School was from 100 Avenue, and that safety was not a concern in the design.

Additionally, Hofmann responded to a question about the amount of land available for the school, which is “approximately 13 acres,” similar to other school sites in Morinville, including Morinville Community High School.


The blame game

The document presented by Mayor Holmes, which includes the Town’s response to the Sturgeon School Division’s letters to parents is available now on the Town’s website for residents to review. The package also contains the open letter by Mayor Holmes that the Town has sent along to Alberta Education Minister David Eggen, which notes Council’s “frustration with the delay,” requesting a meeting within the next two weeks to come to an accord with the issue. Mayor Holmes herself put a lot of blame for delay in the project on the province, commenting in an interview with media that “Sturgeon School Division and the town are staying at the table. It’s the province that’s left, and that’s who we need to re-engage.”

The Department of Education and the Department of Infrastructure has stated to Global News reporter Julia Wong on social media that it was after a call from the school board that the school project was put on hold. The Department of Education further commented that it “trusts local authorities to make the best decisions for students,” and that it’s working with everyone involved to develop a solution.

Speaking with media after the event, Mayor Holmes claimed the importance of the Town’s timelines on demolishing the arena and its effects on the project were minimal. “We’re still working on the project for the new rec centre and going through in the design phase, but we still anticipate the same timeline that we’ve always said, it will be demolished in the Fall of 2017, to the beginning of 2018, and that holds in with the timeline of the new school construction, especially if we are able to do the temporary school to give them a little bit more breathing room.”

The Mayor reported on social media Wednesday afternoon that a meeting with Minister David Eggen had been set up for next week and that the Sturgeon School Division Board Chair and Superintendent had been invited. A meeting is planned for that evening between Council and the Board.

Morinville News will keep residents up to date on our website and social media with any major developments in this story. We will have a story Thursday on Sturgeon School Division’s Wednesday night Committee of the Whole meeting and discussions held there on the issue.

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