Optimism after meeting in Victoria to discuss Willoughby school challenges

Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese and Board of Education chair Wendy Johnson point to several positive signs

Langley Board of Education chair Wendy Johnson and Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese discussed the school challenges in Willoughby with local media Thursday.

Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese is confident a high school will be built in Willoughby — sooner rather than later.

His comment comes after Froese, along with school district superintendent Suzanne Hoffman and Board of Education vice-chair Rob McFarlane went to Victoria on Monday to meet with Minister of Education Peter Fassbender, his top staff and Langley MLA Mary Polak to talk about the urgent need for a high school on the slope.

Aldergrove-Fort Langley MLA Rich Coleman couldn’t make it. This meeting was “a long time coming,” said Froese.

“It was important that all of us were there united in a common goal. The Township isn’t in charge of building schools but we take responsibility for neighbourhood plans,” he said. “Our role is to plan neighbourhoods that are livable and walkable.”

What they heard from the ministry is they are very warm to the idea of Langley submitting a solid plan for the where, how and what a high school would look like on the slope.

And while the government paid for the last three schools to be built in Willoughby over the past five years, it dropped a bombshell this year, saying all school districts now had to come up with 50 per cent of the capital funding for any new school project.

“Our sense is the ministry has softened to the whole idea around school districts having to supply 50 per cent of the capital funds to build schools. It is ‘up to’ 50 per cent,” said Froese.

Currently, Langley has $4 million it could contribute to a new high school, which is estimated to cost around $50 to $60 million. At the last board of education meeting, trustees unanimously approved a motion from McFarlane asking that staff identify school properties that could be sold to help pay for a new high school.

A high school takes four years to build. But with developers buying up most of the land in Willoughby, is there 10 acres or more of land available for a high school?

That is still very much the unknown.

“We are actively working on securing a site for a high school but there is a lot of work to do. I think we are up for the challenge,” said Froese.

It could involve a land swap with the Township, it could involve a current school site or green space site.

After the last election, Froese and board chair Wendy Johnson came up with the idea to create a liaison committee that would share information and collaboration on common issues, like building schools. Prior to that, communication between the Township and school board was “non-existent,” said Johnson. Now the strength of working together has helped bolster Langley’s case for a new high school, both Johnson and Froese said.

In the meeting with the government, the ministry has also made the rare move asking Langley School District to re-submit a capital plan, something no other district is being asked to do right now, Johnson pointed out.

“Langley is one of the fastest growing areas in the province,” said Johnson. “In Willoughby, we have built three schools on time and under budget. The ministry really likes our track record.”

Around 1,760 students attend those three schools, which are either at capacity or over.

But building schools larger is not a wise move, suggests Froese.

“We should build schools according to the life cycle of a community. When you look at Willoughby, it is young families buying these homes. But as time goes on, their children get older, these families stay in their homes and the neighbourhood demographics change,” said Froese. “Then you end up with fewer students and a large, emptier school.”

That’s why portables attached to each new school is a much better way of deciding the size of a school, he said.

And the ministry has decided it doesn’t like Alberta’s modular school model, said Johnson.

“They do serve the need because yes they can go up fast but they are meant to be mobile. What they are seeing in Alberta is those modular schools stay put in that one spot,” Johnson said.

 

WHAT IS NEXT:

The school district plans to begin consulting with the public on strategies and idea of how best to deal with the overcrowding and projected capacity burdens at Willoughby schools. Some of the ideas proposed so far, but not necessarily coming forward to the public, include busing students to schools as far away as D.W. Poppy.

Decisions around what to do with an aging and underpopulated Langley Secondary have to be looked at too.

The district has already met with Willoughby PACs and they have asked to go out to the public with a few different options instead of just one plan, said Johnson.

“The consultation process will be with the people impacted the most, on the slope and in the City. We want to make sure we get this right,” said Johnson.

In January, the board will make some decisions around feedback from public consultation.

 

HOW DID WE GET HERE:

This school year saw a “dramatic shift” of more than 1,000 new students enrolled in Willoughby schools this fall. Mountain Secondary has 16 portables and is at more than double its capacity. The newly opened Yorkson Creek Middle School opened at capacity. R.C. Garnett Elementary is bursting at the seams, with portables everywhere and the school having to stagger recesses to allow for equal time on playground equipment. Kids on the Willoughby slope who live near R.C. Garnett are being bused to the newer Lynn Fripps Elementary.

Development in Willoughby has been underway at a hurricane-style pace for more than a decade and shows no signs of stopping. The neighbourhoods of Latimer and Smith are next to be built up, with a projected 20,000 people brought into that area over the next decade.

A study done 20 years ago, done by then-planner Kurt Alberts, indicated that Willoughby should be developed before Brookswood/Fernridge.

When a development is being decided on by the Township, it requests a report from the school district projecting the amount of school-aged children it will produce based on size of units or type of housing. That has always been controversial, with many from the public arguing the Township was relying on numbers that were underestimated. But those are the numbers given to the Township from the school district experts, pointed out Froese.

The Township is actually going to do a study in the new year, taking one large development and seeing how the projected numbers match to the actual amount of school-aged children.

But in the meantime, Froese doesn’t believe they should slow or stop growth in Willoughby.

“Government shouldn’t get involved in private enterprise,” said Froese. “You control growth, the result is land prices increase. We should manage, not slow growth.”

And with 100,000 new people expected to call Langley home in the next 30 years, the Township and school district will have their work cut out for them for a length period of time into the future.

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