Vow to minimize YK1 disruption as parents air Sissons fears

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Education leaders pledged to do everything possible to reduce disruption to Yellowknife schools as they plan the relocation of hundreds of students for two years.

École JH Sissons School's 350 students will be moved to neighbouring schools from 2020 to 2022 under recently revealed plans to build a new school on the existing JH Sissons site.

One parent at William McDonald School told Education Minister Caroline Cochrane and the YK1 school board: "I'm furious about this plan ... Unless this draft changes significantly, William McDonald School is destroyed."

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Metro Huculak, the YK1 superintendent, replied: "We will be meeting with the staffs and parents from every school. This thing could totally change, but we had to have a starting point … to see what options could work.

"I would suggest that parents come to those meetings and provide their input so we can make a good decision to accommodate the students, so we’re not ill-affecting any group of students.

"We have approximately 14 to 15 months to come up with a plan that everyone can live with."

Meanwhile, the Department of Infrastructure said if construction takes longer than expected, students may end up moving into the new school in phases as areas are completed.

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'Reduce the risks'

The evening began with a territorial government presentation outlining why the school's existing footprint was chosen for construction.

"Building on the existing site is the best long-term location given the cost, site implications, and school operational considerations," read a presentation by the Department of Infrastructure.

A geotechnical study found a high water table and saturated sand at two other sites examined: the school's playground and its parking lot.

"As an engineer, water is an enemy," said Kevin McLeod, speaking on behalf of the department.

"Some of the holes we dug ... filled up within 11 minutes of drilling them, which means the water is under pressure and still flowing a little bit."

Were a school to be built where the parking lot or playground currently lie, McLeod said the solutions were either affordable but risky or safer but costly.

"From a government point of view, using public funds ... there is ability to reduce the risks by staying away from the areas that are high-risk," he concluded.

The school's current site sits on bedrock, which is easier to build on.

"We have taken almost two years of planning," said McLeod. "We want to do it right and as properly as we can."

What about delays?

Later, in response to a question from the floor, McLeod acknowledged construction projects in the NWT have a history of overrunning.

Acknowledging the potential impact on the YK1 school system if that happens to the new JH Sissons, McLeod said: "That is an excellent question. I get the point."

He continued: "There is also the ability to move in parts of the school as it gets finished, to help relieve pressure somewhere else. If we see that it is going to be late … perhaps a phased-in approach might be the way to go."

Allan Shortt, a Yellowknife resident and former YK1 board member with decades of experience in construction, questioned the validity of the engineering decision made by the territorial government, arguing other sites did not present the challenge the territory intimated.

Shortt, who felt the present plan did not justify the disruption to the city's students, advocated the use of pile foundations – long cylinders used to stabilize a structure.

"I would love to sit down with him and talk to him," responded McLeod. "It's the water, and how we deal with that."

Accommodating students

Huculak said a series of meetings will take place to explore how JH Sissons students can be moved and accommodated during the two years of proposed construction, from the fall of 2020 to the new school's planned opening in August 2022.

"We are hoping, by March break next year, we'll have a pretty concrete plan," Huculak told gathered parents on Thursday.

Presenting a draft plan, Huculak – stressing the draft is "only a starting point" – outlined a series of potential changes to Yellowknife schools for the two-year period.

William McDonald School, for example, could become a JK-7 school offering French Immersion; NJ Macpherson School could become a JK-7 school including Montessori, and Grade 8 students from both William McDonald School and Range Lake North School could move to Sir John Franklin High School.

The territorial government first announced its decision last week.

Since that announcement, the YK1 school board has given that decision its blessing – even though it overrides an earlier YK1 recommendation to look at alternative sites.

As the body responsible for financing construction, the territorial government holds the final say on where and how the school is built.

The current school has stood since 1975. An original plan to retrofit the building was upgraded to a full rebuild on the basis of what the territory termed “significant wear and tear on the building and growth in the school population.”

At the moment, JH Sissons is reported to be operating at 109 percent of its planned capacity.

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