The Future of Connaught Community School

Today we have a guest post by Trish Elliott about the future of The Connaught Community School. Enjoy!

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By Trish Elliott

École Connaught Community School, located on Elphinstone and 13th, is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012. For the past year, students, community organizations and parents have been engaged in exploring and celebrating the school’s cultural and architectural heritage. A big community festival is planned for Sept. 29-30 on the school grounds, which in recent years have been transformed by community volunteers into an urban park for all to enjoy.

Meanwhile, the Regina Public School Board board invited citizens to attend a meeting in the school gym on April 4. Their notice stated “examples of 21st Century schools will be provided,” followed by further meetings “where decisions as to the future facility will be made.”

The major question is whether the century-old building will undergo a major renovation, or whether it will be simply demolished and replaced with a modern structure.

The contracted consultant is P3Architecture, the same firm heading up the Regina Public Library and Crescent Apartments projects. Looking at it optimistically, this could be an excellent opportunity to establish a new model for how we treat schools in Regina – one that respects local heritage and recognizes the considerable environmental and economic benefits of renovation. With its wide hallways and thick foundations, Connaught is as good a candidate for renovation as any school could be.

This won’t be an easy corner to turn, however. For starters, P3A’s project gallery shows no examples of previous heritage restorations, although representative James Youk said the firm does have renovation work on its resume, and that they have a highly qualified heritage architect on their team.

Certainly respect for the existing built environment was high on the minds of many meeting participants. However, the process by which this input will go forward remains unclear. Both P3A and board officials stated no decisions will be made, despite what the earlier public notice said.

Instead, the option of either a rebuild or a renovation will be placed before the Ministry for final arbitration. It was explained the options will be cost-only – meaning numbers will rule, not community sentiment. How the numbers are put together – what gets valued and what doesn’t get valued – becomes highly important in this situation.

Cathedral Area residents have never done well by sitting back and putting their fate in the hands of others to decide. One of the questions that arose was why the consultant must put forward a rebuild option, if there is a clear community preference for renovation of the existing structure. The answer seemed to be ‘just because.’

Active citizen participation at the next meeting – Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m. in the school gym – is crucial for shaping what kind of recommendation goes forward, and for monitoring how engineering and heritage assessments will be interpreted.

From the provincial level down to local school boards, the system is highly biased toward endless cycles of demolition and new construction. The bias was clear even in the discussion of school grounds, when a board representative stated the board will create and maintain green spaces and playgrounds for new builds, although it does not do so for its existing buildings (Parents raise funds and cut the grass, with the City of Regina chipping in matching grants).

New buildings are easier to deconstruct, making school removals a simpler process. In public comments, both the province and Regina Public have let it be known that school buildings should not last more than 50 years. The board has shown a preference for single-storey large-footprint construction to replace compact older buildings. As well, a new engineer’s report declares Connaught will become unsafe within five years.  This provides a strong tool for convincing the school community that the century-old building must come down ‘for the sake of the children.’

The board generally defends unpopular decisions by saying it’s ‘all about the children.’

But the future of Connaught School is also all about the surrounding community, all about the city, and all about establishing sound fix-it-first policies  that protect the public interest.

At issue is ongoing neglect of public buildings and chronic under-funding of the activities that go on inside them – a problem certainly not restricted to the education sector. Meanwhile, tremendous resources go into sod-turnings for new buildings that will face their own neglected future until someone declares them unfit, unleashing the next round of multi-million-dollar tenders.

As a historic school, Connaught offers its students and surrounding community cultural and educational value that cannot be replaced at any price. It provides a green, community-built public space that will most certainly be engulfed by new construction. Anchoring one end of the city’s most significant heritage corridor, its future is important to all Regina citizens.

Scheduled meetings are open to all. Here are some helpful resources for those who are interested in historic schools:

Our Living Legacy (short video)

Renovate or Replace? The Case for Restoring and Reusing Older School Buildings

Historic School Renovation Success Stories

Older and Historic Schools: Restoration or Replacement and the Role of the Feasibility Study

Renovating Schools: Good for the Pocketbook and Good for the Soul

A Community Guide to Saving Older Schools

How to Save Your Historic School: 10 Action Steps

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The Future of Connaught Community School

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