The Northern Lights Public Schools Board (NLPS) says a new school to replace Vera M. Welsh Elementary School in Lac La Biche remains the division’s top capital priority.
“We often go long periods of time before approvals. Generally most of our requests have been on our capital plan for at least ten years before they are approved,” Nicole Garner Communications Officer for Northern Lights Public Schools said. “In the case of Vera, it has been either the number one or number two priority for 20 years and has still not received approval.”
The 2021-2024 Capital Plan is a list of projects that NLPS would like Alberta Education to fund and for the new school in Lac La Biche, Garner explained that the Capital Plan has to be submitted by the end of March, so it has either has been submitted already or will be sometime in the next couple of days.
The NLPS says Vera M. Welsh is in a low lying area that has contributed to many facility issues and health concerns. An underground spring continues to run through the lower mechanical room. Additionally, it is located next to the CN railroad that hauls dangerous chemicals up to oil and gas sites.
While the NLPS maintenance team does its best to address issues, it is still an old, tired facility that is at end of life. The five year deferred maintenance costs of $11.8 million near the cost of replacement ($21 million). The current school is underutilized and a replacement school would not only address health and safety, and infrastructure conditions, but would be the right size for the current population.
“We will still have to wait for the project to be approved,” Garner said. “We would hope that the work we have done to date, including the work done with the consultant would be looked upon favourably and perhaps move us closer to approval, but we recognize that all school boards across the province also have projects they would like completed.”
The original site for a replacement school was identified approximately 10 years ago. The Bold Center has proven to be a good choice for the new JAWS high school. However, for an elementary school, this is no longer the preferred site. A site evaluation has been completed for another site, currently owned by NLPS, known as the Hudson Bay Lands. Extensive site work (estimated at $1.5 million) is likely necessary to provide a suitable foundational base for the school.
This project has been on the division’s capital plan for 20 years. In the fall of 2020, NLPS, along with Lakeland Catholic and East Central Francophone, received planning funds to assist in determining a Lac La Biche solution to address the capital needs of all three boards. FWBA Architects was contracted to assess current facility conditions and suggest options. This process is well underway and is anticipated to be finalized by May 2021.
Not in the Budget
In total, the Alberta government says the 2021 Capital Plan will spend $1.6 billion over three years on school infrastructure.
On March 10, the Alberta government announced 14 projects costing taxpayers $268 million for new schools and education upgrades, however, Vera M. Welsh Elementary School in Lac La Biche was not included in the announcement.