News / Calgary

Parents elsewhere in Calgary allege Elbow Park kids 'worth more' to province

Parents in communities starved for new schools are questioning a move to rebuild a flood-damaged Calgary school at a steeper cost than other elementary facilities that could ultimately serve up to three times as many kids.

Calgary Board of Education trustees voted last week to tear down Elbow Park School and rebuild it after water pooled under the building, causing severe structural damage during June's historic flood. The move was actually pegged as being far cheaper than trying to repair the original facility — a move that Education Minister Jeff Johnson said Sunday came with "no guarantees."

Even still, sources said trustees were informed behind closed doors the replacement building could cost up to $20 million, roughly 40 per cent more than other elementary buildings pegged for Calgary that will house 600 kids.

Elbow Park's current student population at a temporary modular school hovers at 185 kids.

Infuriating parents in Calgary's fast-growing west side even further is word that students from the Spanish bilingual program at Westgate School will now be moved 14 kilometres southeast to Eugene Coste, the same building that was housing Elbow Park kids while they awaited new modular classrooms in the field of Earl Grey School.

Susannah Thomsen has one child attending the Westgate program and another that she hoped would be starting this fall. She said CBE officials have presented "dozens of scenarios" in recent years to address overcapacity issues at Westgate — a board report states the school sits at 91-per-cent capacity this fall — but Coste was never mentioned as an option until an email came declaring the move final on Thursday. She's now considering whether to put her youngsters back into a regular English program.

"It felt like the rug was pulled out from under us," Thomsen said, later adding, "It does seem hard to explain why Elbow Park (kids) couldn't be either driven or bussed to a school that was 15 minutes away (in Eugene Coste) but the Westgate Spanish program can be driven up to an hour and quarter away . . . I can't imagine what the province's answer is to that except that those children are worth more per head then other children in the city."

But Education Minister Jeff Johnson deflected any claims that his government was playing favourites with students in Premier Alison Redford's riding.

"The jigsaw puzzle in terms of what programs are in what schools is something they (the CBE) have to wrestle with locally," he said in an interview Sunday. "The response to the flood is a separate issue than dealing with enrolment or program moves or capacity issues Calgary has."

Jan Nicholson, however, echoed Thomsen's allegations of favouritism. She's among a group of parents who have launched a petition and begun meeting with provincial officials in hopes of securing a new middle school facility to alleviate capacity issues at nearby West Springs.

While CBE officials repeatedly stressed the Elbow Park rebuild won't impact other capital projects, Nicholson said the province still appears to be footing the bill for the project and then waiting to see if it will be reimbursed as part of a flood-aid compensation package expected from the federal government.

"As a good businessperson you would never take the risk of assuming that money is coming," Nicholson said.

The Elbow Park School flood fallout has been a lightning rod for controversy — even the temporary modular project at Earl Grey drew criticism after it was revealed a $1-million gym was be constructed for students there and was being built by a company belonging to the head of an area resident's association.

Parents in the west end turned their frustrations over the Westgate decision towards area CBE trustee Trina Hurdman over the weekend, asking why she hadn't intervened.

But Hurdman said in an interview Sunday she'd only found out about the decision along with everyone else on Thursday morning. She said the larger issue is a lack of infrastructure being faced by the board in various areas of the city.

"At the end of the day, these are the facts — we desperately need new schools, the province has promised us new schools and they need to keep that promise," Hurdman said.

The province has pledged to announce 90 more new-school and modernization projects early on in 2014.

Metro requested more information from the CBE on the surprise move of the Westgate program Friday and a spokesperson said more detail would be provided Monday.

Amber Stewart was the lone trustee to vote against rebuilding Elbow Park, but she said Sunday a decision had been made and it was time to move on.

CBE officials and  Johnson said keeping certain historical features of the original Elbow Park School and a need to mitigate against future flood damage could drive the cost for a replacement facility up over a typical building.

But Johnson said Sunday he'd been told the cost for the new facility would still land around $14 million.

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