City & Politics, City Hall

Historic Regina falling victim to wrecking ball, myopia

At its Feb. 26 meeting, the Regina Public School Division’s Board of Trustees voted 5-2 to have the historic 101-year-old École Connaught School demolished and replaced with a newer building. This decision was contrary to the request made by a delegation from the community, which argued passionately that the school should be renovated and retain its historic look.

Connaught School, pictured above, is one of two historic brick buildings that sit at the west entrance to the Cathedral Neighbourhood, one of Regina’s oldest and most cherished neighbourhood. The other building is the Connaught Library, which is nearly as old as the school.

It was standing room only as parents, students and community members turned out to support the community group Real Renewal, in its quest to have the board table the vote so further consultation could take place, more information be brought forward and potentially a different decision be reached.

However, the majority of the board members appeared to have already made up their minds about how the issue should be dealt with. When the vote came up on what to do with Connaught School, a motion by trustee Carla Beck to table the vote was quickly shot down. The board then voted on the original motion and sealed the school’s fate with the 5-2 decision.

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(Reporter’s note: Most if not all decisions made by school division trustees are made in a closed session before the public meeting. This ensures each vote has a mover and seconder and that those trustees are on the same page about an issue. The board chair usually gives the official reply or answer about how the board feels on an issue. Trustees can speak, but their words carry little to no weight on the official division response.)

Given a few minutes to speak about the decision, Beck then gave a passionate speech about the decision, saying she voted against it because she felt the process was not transparent enough for her liking and not enough research had been completed around the costs of the renovation.

She made three very good points during her talk. The first was Regina does a deplorable job – a piss-poor job, really – of preserving its past, particularly the many historic buildings in the city.

There have been a number of buildings over the years which have felt the armoured fist of a wrecking ball. Preserving the Queen City’s iconic and important past has not even registered on the minds of many, if any, city councillors over the years. And with the current administration being fully pro-business development, the chances of saving any other piece of Regina’s proud past are dismally small.

As an example, the City of Regina really messed up 12th Avenue – a main thoroughfare downtown – when city council decided to turn that street into a vehicle-restricted, pedestrian-friendly community location. One of the casualties of this decision was the closure of the oldest restaurant in Regina, the 99-year-old (at the time) Nova Café.

When they closed the street off and put up a fence in front of the building to work on the street, that hindered people’s ability to get to the café and when no one is coming to give you business, you run out of money. Today, the entire storefront is covered with a mural, but don’t be too surprised if, in the future, that entire stretch of buildings is demolished to make way for another high-rise business office.

Trustee Carla Beck’s second good point was the fact with the division unable to control its own mill rate, or how it brings in money, it is restricted in what it can do financially. The provincial Ministry of Education now directly funds every school division in the province, but the funding formula the ministry uses is so badly designed some school divisions barely have any money to do anything. Moreover, when the formula originally came out, some divisions actually had money clawed back and given to other divisions.

With the ministry controlling the purse strings, the Regina Public School Division supposedly had little choice when it came to what to do with the schools.

The third point Beck made was, when dealing with ministry officials, she said she had the feeling the ministry is more interested in pushing divisions to build new versus renovating, even if the school is historic.

This mentality makes no sense, financially. How could it cost more to renovate a school versus build a new one? The cost of construction materials in this province are through the freakin’ roof! Saskatchewan is in the midst of a massive building boom.

Building a new school would cost much, much more than upgrading a building. Even the community group Real Renewal questioned the board’s financial numbers of upgrading versus building new. During their presentation, Real Renewal members had a Powerpoint presentation going, with some slides showing the board’s financial picture for Connaught. Real Renewal posited that renovating the building would not cost $4 million more than building new, but would actually cost slightly more than $1.5 million.

One of the board’s arguments for building new instead of renovating, is the fact the school has significant structural problems, particularly the foundation. The trustees even took a tour of the school with the engineers – the night before the board meeting. Supposedly the division has been monitoring for a number of years the state of the foundation and structural issues. Well, those issues wouldn’t have become such a problem if they had been dealt with a long time ago.

The trustees’ attitude toward this issue shows they just don’t give a damn about preserving an architectural piece of heritage. One would think they would be proud to crow, “We are providing students with a 21st century education in a historic Regina building that has a connection to the community’s past.” But the mentality of, if it’s old it’s got to go, permeates much of this city, province, hell even the country. Sometimes I wish we had the mentality of the Europeans, who know how to preserve their past – when it’s not being bombed out of course.

A conspiracy-theory idea I have is the Ministry of Education likes the Regina Public School Division better than any other division in the province. In the past 10 years, Regina Public has seen extensive upgrades to many of its schools, the demolition of four or five schools and the construction of three new schools (with one in the process of being constructed right now) in the last four years alone. In comparison, the Regina Catholic School Division has received very little funding to upgrade schools and has not had one new school built.

In fact, many projects in Regina Catholic have been on a list for quite some time, with very little movement up the list to the top. The question is, how did Regina Public get the funding for three new schools in such a short period while Regina Catholic can’t even get funding for some renovations to its schools and new builds? Even division in the province has desired projects on the list to be funded. How was Regina Public able to build three new schools and jump the queue?

It would appear there is some favouritism being shown to the public division in Regina, by a factor of three I’d say.

A new community group has sprung up from this decision to bulldoze École Connaught School, called Save Our Connaught. Here’s hoping it can talk some sense into the ministry and have this myopic decision overturned. The ministry, after all, has the final say in all decisions school divisions make.

Jason Antonio is the Regina correspondent for Spectator Tribune.

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