Western School Division board chair Brian Fransen spoke at a public meeting about the lack of school space on June 11. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)
Despite growing enrolment and a shrinking amount of space for new students, there is no new school on Morden’s horizon.
Western School Division (WSD) held a public forum on June 11 at Ecole Morden Middle School to present the public with facts about enrolment numbers and to try to answer questions and address frustrations parents might have.
Morden’s last new school was Minnewasta School in 1990 - nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, Minnewasta School now has six portable classrooms attached, Maple Leaf School has seven and EMMS has one.
Western School Division board chair Brian Fransen said requests for a new school have been part of the school division’s planning since 2006. They received approval and bought land a few years ago to prepare for putting a new early year school into Morden.
What they have heard since then, Fransen said, are things like ‘Just wait,’ and ‘You’re on the list.’
There has been no announcement for a new school yet, and Fransen said that announcement is not likely to arrive any time soon. “We know now that a new school announcement is at least three years away and that means at best we would be looking at opening a new school five years from now, unless something else changes.” he said. “When new space is just around the corner it makes sense to tough it out a little bit longer. With a different understanding of when we could see a new school we have to find other ways to relieve the pressure.”
Fransen said if Morden cannot get a new school in the next three to five years, they will have to continue to rely on portable classrooms. “We are going to be filling our schoolyards with portables just so we can fit the kids that we have and we are going to be severely under-staffing the supports that we need to put in place to make our schools work properly,” he said. “If we need to use music and library space for classrooms, then the music program is definitely going to be impacted. It isn’t going to stop but it’s going to be modified. It’s not going to be a dedicated space for music.”
“If that’s what we have to do,” he added. “That’s not what we want to do at all, but we need space.”
Fransen said while he doesn’t have the exact figures for how much a new school would cost, it would probably be in the eight figure range. “Just for perspective our annual budget is $21 million,” he said. “$21 million probably wouldn’t build a full new school.”
Typically builds are provincially funded with local money covering only a small portion, Fransen said.
Three schools have already converted their computer labs into classroom spaces, and two classrooms had to start the year in the library while WSD waited for portables to arrive.
Fransen said WSD put in a request earlier this year for three stacked classrooms at a space that was prepped at the north end of Morden Collegiate Institute. The school division suggested temporarily transfering some of the classrooms at the south end of MCI to EMMS and use the three stacked classroom for the high school.
That request was denied.
WSD currently has 1810 students enrolled in schools in Morden. 1878 are anticipated for next year, and five years from now Fransen said the division could see as many as 2200. There has been a 40 per cent increase in early years enrolment in the past 10 years.
By the PSFB’s standards, WSD is 46,000 square feet short, which is the approximate size of Minnewasta School and Maple Leaf School combined.
Despite having the second least amount of square footage per student in Manitoba, WSD was the only division to not get a new school or expansion.
Fransen said the board has “stepped up its advocacy game” in the past few years by meeting with MLAs, the Public Schools Finance Board (PSFB) and keeping a presence in Winnipeg legislature, but often get labeled as ‘lobbyists’ as a result.
“One of the things we have noticed is that it’s difficult to gain traction with government,” Fransen said. “When we talk with government, we are heard through a filter. It’s as though we need to say ‘We need a new school’ because that’s what trustees do. It’s as though they need to say ‘We have no money’ because that’s what government officials do.”
The gym at EMMS was full of parents and residents, who questioned the logic behind the lack of space and tried to offer solutions to the problem.
Fransen said one thing he took from the meeting was the energy of residents. “There is great passion in this community for the need for the space,” he said. “As a board and senior admin, we’ve spent a lot of energy over the last number of years focusing on this and working with government, but we haven’t really brought it into the public a whole lot because this is the way it’s been done. Now we’re trying to raise the voice of the community and give them facts in terms of where we’re feeling the pinches and what the realities are. There’s a lot of a energy.”
Despite the response, there were not many solutions to be found. “As far as I know, all school construction need to go through the Public Schools Finance Board,” Fransen said. “We could say we could raise money, but it all still needs to go through [PSFB]. There might be able to be some collective, creative way of putting that together, but it’s going to take some time.”
Fransen said WSD will be meeting with PSFB next week to request two more portables for EMMS. “We need the space for our classrooms,” he said. “Previous requests have been denied, so we’re meeting with them face-to-face to have a discussion with them and express the need to them face-to-face.”
Fransen said it is possible this request will be denied. “If it is, we will have to find space for two classrooms within the space that we already have,” he said.
Fransen said he and the board will continue to advocate for a new school, but he wants residents to feel free to tell their stories and present these facts to government officials as well.
In the meantime, Morden residents have started a petition to get a new school, and it has already been signed by over 1,300 people. The petition can be found by searching ‘Morden children need a new school urgently’ on www.change.org. For more information or for a place to go to discuss or find out what you can do, there is a Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/morden.new.school.