Victoria High School. Nicole Crescenzi/VICTORIA NEWS

Op-Ed: Province must choose education over pricey Vic High upgrade

Taxpayers watchdog Stan Bartlett looks at the costly Vic High seismic upgrade project

By Stan Bartlett

With looming elections, Greater Victoria School Board trustees have voted to preserve Vic High for its heritage and amenities, rather than investing in a more affordable, state-of the art facility built to a high environmental standard.

We are shocked that trustees dismissed the $68-million, state-of-the-art LEED option to house 1,000 students. Instead, trustees recommended the so-called ‘seismic upgrade plus enhancements option’ at a cost of $73.3 million. Both options include a $6 million neighbourhood learning centre.

How valid is this third set of estimates? Whatever the cost, the end result will be a facility of inferior quality and lower environmental standards, at an additional capital cost of more than $5.3 million. Of note, operating and maintenance costs for this fixer-upper will be more well into the future.

We urge the province to reject outright the trustees’ recommendation.

While the City of Victoria put Vic High on its heritage registry, it never formally protected the property. There’s no heritage covenant on the property and it’s neither a provincial or national historic site. The National Trust for Canada put Vic High on its so-called ‘Top 10 Endangered Places List’ designation far too late in the process to have much sway or credibility with taxpayers.

Construction upgrades are guesstimates. The reserves and inflation allowance using ministry figures has been adjusted upward to $13 million for a new build to allow for escalating construction costs. By comparison, the reserves and inflation allowance is $17 million for the so-called ‘seismic upgrading plus option.’

The bottom line? There’s more risk to the taxpayer, since estimating the costs of an upgrade for an old facility is notoriously difficult.

On top of that, ongoing maintenance and operating costs will be more in a facility completely not built to very high LEED environmental standards. Taxpayers will pay more for such things as heating, ventilation and maintenance during the facility’s shorter life cycle.

Upgrades are just the beginning. Don’t be seduced by the $73.3 million estimate, since local taxpayers might be on the hook for upgrades not considered seismic-related. Understandably, the school board is worried provincial funding will not include high efficiency windows, repointing the masonry, repairing or replacing failing terracotta, dealing with interior heritage issues, and adding various energy efficiency measures.

So, if the upgrade option proceeds, the budget for these essential improvements might add to the tax burden of local taxpayers.

Vic High is more than bricks and mortar. As expected, students, parents and alumni support preserving the old structure – no matter the cost. The school’s proud history, however, can be carried on in a wonderful new school and even enhanced by students and the community.

We urge the province to consider a compromise, a Fourth Option that advocates a new school incorporating elements of the old school such as large windows and ornate facades.

Demands on education dollars are escalating, beyond the requirements of a new teachers’ contract, the replacement of portables and the Supreme Court decision on classroom size. Serious external financial pressures, such as another costly forest fire season or a trade war are ever present.

Finally, we urge Education Minister Rob Fleming to consider the five-year capital plan just submitted to his ministry: It outlines the need for more than $67 million in seismic upgrades in 10 other SD61 schools. Those numbers are about to “grow significantly” because of new seismic standards and testing.

In addition, $28.7 million is needed for other capital needs including a downtown Victoria elementary school.

Prudent funding of a new Vic High will send a message to voters that the province knows the basics of math when it comes to spending public dollars. Frugality and common sense must rule the day.

Stan Bartlett is chair Of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria.

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