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New school build caught in 'standstill'

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Northwest Catholic District School Board administration received some unexpected news just two hours prior to their monthly board meeting last Tuesday night that may delay the building of the new consolidated school here.

And without the Ministry of Education's approval to proceed, the project cannot be put out to tender.

Due to concerns around market volatility, and potential additional travel and labour costs, the consolidation of St. Michael's and St. Francis School cost estimates slightly exceeded the benchmarks available for the board's new school.

Trustees originally approved an electronic motion to commit $2.017 million from its accumulated surplus to the overall project funding and asked the ministry for a little over $400,000 to offset the remaining funding deficit.

The board was told two weeks prior to last week's meeting that as long as additional funding requested was under $1 million, it would be made available even though the ministry has moved into the writ period until a new provincial government is elected on June 7.

But at last Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent of Business Seija Van Haesendonck said that a couple of hours earlier, she had received an e-mail from the ministry indicating it had been instructed that no projects were to be given approval to proceed with any additional funding requests during the election period.

“Essentially, that brought our approval to proceed request to a standstill,” Van Haesendonck noted.

“So I did send out an e-mail immediately and got a phone call from one of the senior managers in the capital branch, and we did talk about how that was different information than what was presented to our board 10 or 14 days ago,” she added.

“He indicated that this was also a change that was suddenly unexpected within their own branch.”

Van Haesendonck then was told by the ministry that their best path moving forward was to ask trustees to pass a motion to approve and commit additional accumulated surplus to cover the outstanding amount of $440,000.

This motion was approved last week and the board now has informed the ministry that all the funding overage has been identified and addressed through the committed accumulated surplus.

The board now is eagerly awaiting ministry approval.

“It's not a guarantee but currently we are sitting at a roadblock that we cannot get beyond until a new government is elected,” Van Haesendonck noted.

Director of Education Brendan Hyatt, along with the rest of the board, was disappointed to hear the news but noted it's the people at the top of the ministry who make these sudden changes.

“It's nothing that the group that we're dealing with at the ministry had anything to do with,” he stressed.

“There's people higher up who make decisions and sometimes what they make 10 days ago has to change based on where they are at in the writ or in the governance,” Hyatt explained.

The delay this has caused for the project is the primary source of the board's disappointment.

“I guess the difficulty for us, really, is the fact that this is prime building time,” Hyatt remarked.

“One of the struggles for us in the north is that the building season isn't as long as it is in southern Ontario,” he noted.

“So we don't want to see that the building gets delayed and pushed out further than what we're expecting it to be.”

Hyatt's main focus is getting the school opened in time for the 2019-20 school year.

“We have a very tight timeline as it is and if you don't get a building closed in before the snow and the cold comes, the costs skyrocket because you have to heat your buildings and construction heaters are not cheap,” he said.

Hyatt hopes the approval to proceed request will get ministry approval in the coming week, but conceded it could come after the election.

Moving forward, both he and Van Haesendonck will continue their dialogues with the ministry to get this issue resolved as soon as they can.

“At the end of the day, my goal is to have a viable school opened for the 2019-20 school year,” Hyatt said.

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