Town finds sites for new schools

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"Probably the hardest decision I've had to make," says Holmes

Morinville finally has homes for its two new schools, but it’s not clear if they’ll be ready soon enough for the provincial government.

Town council moved unanimously last week to write a letter of support to the Greater St. Albert Catholic School board saying that they would place the board’s new elementary school in the proposed Westwinds subdivision.

After hours of debate, council also voted 5-2 to create a new school site next to the Sturgeon School Division headquarters for that board’s new Grade 5-to-9 school. Councillors Rob Ladouceur and Barry Turner were opposed.

The Sturgeon and Catholic boards were both promised $750,000 each in 2014 to plan new schools in Morinville. But that cash was contingent on the town having serviced sites available for those schools, which it didn’t have.

The province also told the town that these schools would be “pulled out of the queue” for this year’s round of design work if they didn’t have sites ready by about June 26, delaying their construction, town chief administrative officer Debbie Oyarzun said.

The Catholic board supported the idea of putting its school in the Westwinds subdivision, which is the 167-acre field south of the south-side railroad tracks, west of 100 Street and north of 90 Avenue.

It’s unclear when developer Landrex will have this site serviced, but the town was working with the company to make it happen as soon as possible, said town planning and development director Greg Hofmann.

“They know the urgency as well.”

Sturgeon Schools, meanwhile, supported the creation of a new school site next to its division office. This site would include the land under the Ray McDonald arena once it’s demolished.

Catholic easy, Sturgeon hard

Much of the debate last June 23 revolved around council’s desire to put at least one of the two schools next to the new rec-centre.

Turner suggested that the town should “play a little chicken with the timeline” and spend more time working on a deal to put the Sturgeon school on the rec-centre lands instead of trying to “shoehorn” a school into the spot by the district office.

Ladouceur also wanted to see a school hooked to the rec-centre, adding that it would be “a mistake” not to do so.

Parents also seemed split over the two sites, said Coun. Brennan Fitzgerald.

“I’m a little disappointed with the level of politics that have been played with this issue,” he added, later clarifying in an interview that he was specifically criticizing Sturgeon School Division board chair Terry Jewell for being unco-operative.

“I don’t think there’s been a spirit of collaboration at all.”

Coun. Nicole Boutestein agreed, saying that she felt cornered by the Sturgeon board, but noted that the town would have to give away land it paid for if it put a school on the rec-centre site.

Mayor Lisa Holmes noted that the Catholic board school couldn’t be placed on the rec-centre lands since those lands were still part of Sturgeon County – a place where St. Albert Catholic did not have authorization to operate.

“In almost five years, this is probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make,” she said of this debate, as it would have a direct effect on her children in the Sturgeon School Division.

The rec-centre site looked great to her as a mother, but as a mayor, she knew that said site wouldn’t be ready by 2017, which would push a new school back to at least 2019 – well after the point where an expanded Morinville Public Elementary would be full.

“That’s just not going to work.”

Holmes said she was disappointed that they wouldn’t have a school by the rec-centre, but believed creating a new site was the best option for the Sturgeon school.

“No matter where this school building is in town, it will be amazing,” she said, and it will revitalize the surrounding neighbourhood.

Boards pleased

Catholic board superintendent David Keohane said he was impressed by this outcome, noting that the town had done everything the board could ask of them.

It was now up to the town and Landrex to get the Westwinds site serviced on time, Keohane said. He was optimistic that the school could be built on it by 2018.

Although the Westwinds area structure plan features a school site on the south side of the subdivision, Oyarzun said the actual location of the school has not been finalized.

Jewell said there was still a lot of work needed to get the new site for the Sturgeon school ready for development. Still, he hoped council’s moves would be enough to satisfy the province, and also hoped to see the new school built by 2018.

Jewell said that he and the board had pushed hard to get a school site ready on time and was not sure what Fitzgerald meant with his criticisms.

“If it’s our fault, I have no idea why it’s our fault.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.