A decision at the last Board of Education meeting on Feb. 26 has the parents and community members of École Connaught Community School disquieted. At the meeting, the board voted in favour of demolishing and rebuilding the century-old school instead of renovating the building, with the engineering report stating it was cheaper to rebuild completely than renovate.
Not all of the members were in agreeance however. At the meeting, board member Carla Beck spoke to tabling the motion until a later date.
“I do take, as part of this board, responsibility for the fact that I didn’t know the flaw in our process until it was too late. That had meant that the deadline had passed for presentation to the board level, although I do appreciate the provisions made for both delegations to speak to the board tonight. As I already noted, my main concern with this motion is the process leading up to it,” said Beck.
“I think that the Connaught SCC [School Community Council] had a very valid suggestion that timelines for decisions and input opportunities be provided to them in advance. I think that this was a reasonable request, and in fact something I would like to see added to all of the board’s consultations with SCCs in the future.”
Even though Beck wanted the motion tabled, she was still unsure as to whether renovating the school was feasible and told the board, “I must be clear that I’m not sure heritage renovation is possible.”
Echoing the words of those in the Connaught community, Beck wanted to know “if contracting [an] engineer might be possible, someone with heritage experience – a sober second thought” in order to “give us a chance to more clearly communicate the situation to our SCC and respond to some of the concerns that were brought up by the community.”
Board member Kathleen O’Reilly felt similarly to Beck and also spoke to tabling the motion at the meeting.
“I do not have sufficient information to make such an important decision. I don’t know whether Connaught can be renovated … I do know that we need a second opinion,” said O’Reilly.
Moreover, Beck noted the dismal track record Regina has in demonstrating tangible care for its historic buildings.
“Not everyone values historical buildings, and I think that in Regina we have a particularly poor reputation for caring for our built history,” said Beck. “There’s no value, dollar or otherwise, assigned to heritage retention.”
Unfortunately for Connaught, the other members didn’t feel the same way, and the motion to table the decision was defeated. The decision to demolish and rebuild Connaught subsequently passed with Beck and O’Reilly being the only votes against the decision.
Obviously, not all of the board members felt the same way as Beck and O’Reilly. Board chairperson Katherine Gagne said she was pleased with the board’s decision.
“It’s sort of an exciting night for the board because we are able to advance and make recommendations to the Ministry for three new schools in the city of Regina, so that’s something that any school board would celebrate, that we get to make those recommendations to the Ministry,” said Gagne.
Gagne also felt that sufficient consultation with the community had been achieved despite complaints from the Connaught community.
“Not everyone values historical buildings, and I think that in Regina we have a particularly poor reputation for caring for our built history … There’s no value, dollar or otherwise, assigned to heritage retention.” – Carla Beck
“We went through a standard process which we have done with every one of our school builds. The community was consulted three, four times in this process. We had many, many pages of community input as we looked through the report that we received, and so I feel that we did consult, and we did hear from the community,” said Gagne.
Can it be saved?
While the reality of saving Connaught given its current condition has been called into question even by those who wanted more time to deliberate the decision, historic building conservation expert June Botkin nevertheless believes the building can “absolutely” be conserved.
She also called into question the assessment given to the school and stressed the need for a second opinion on the building from someone who specializes in the conservation of historic and heritage architecture.
“Their numbers don’t make sense. They’ve got a 25 per cent contingency markup on the foundation, and they add another ten per cent, so they’ve got 35 per cent markup … 35 per cent is outrageous. How come they’re not down between ten and 15 per cent on the whole thing?
“If you know the building style and the building construction, then you can properly estimate what the costs are. If you don’t understand what the building construction or are not familiar with historic buildings, then you’re going to put a huge markup because you have no idea,” said Botkin.
Botkin also questioned the rationale behind mandatory relocation for the students during the potential renovations, a point which was raised by members of the Board of Education, saying that the renovations could be phased, and as long as the areas were secured, students would not have to be relocated.
The next step
Notwithstanding the board’s decision, the Connaught community isn’t giving up hope yet.
“It looks like people don’t want to back down; they want to take it to the province, which is a good strategy – take it to the next level, ‘cause if that’s the constraint, then that’s where the power’s gotta go. People wanna take back their school and their community, and they seem pretty fired up. It’s not over,” said community member Trish Elliott, who spoke to the board on behalf of the community at the Feb. 26 meeting.
The Board of Education’s decision was disheartening for the community, but Elliott was not surprised with the way the vote went.
“I think people get a bit invested in the system. Kathleen [O’Reilly] and Carla [Beck] know the community more, so they would know, they would be very well aware of what they’d be touching off with that decision whereas the others perhaps not,” said Elliott.
Elliott also believes taking this issue to the province will have substantial weight with the strong support from the surrounding community.
“We feel that this could be precedent setting if we have a province that will not fund renovation even when communities are willing to put in the money and partner on it, and that was one of the questions that people were asking: if we’re willing to raise the money, why won’t they work with us?”
And as Elliott mentioned previously, the community isn’t backing down.
On March 3, a meeting was held and the organization dubbed Save Our Connaught was formed to fight the decision. The group is actively looking into seeking a formal second opinion on the building with “detailed unit costs based on a full investigation into the structure, rather than the broad estimates that were placed before the Regina Board of Education,” a post on the group’s website read.
“There’s a really strong community here that doesn’t want to take this,” said Elliott.
Despite the gravity the Board of Education’s decision may carry regarding the future of École Connaught Community School, Elliott and the community aren’t giving up hope yet. “Stay tuned. It doesn’t look like it’s finished.”
Photo by Paul Bogdan