hitting the pause button on new f.h. collins

Now that the government has spray-painted over the completion date and left it blank on the "Reconstruction of F.H. Collins" sign in front of the old school, I guess we have time to think.

Now that the government has spray-painted over the completion date and left it blank on the “Reconstruction of F.H. Collins” sign in front of the old school, I guess we have time to think.

Before we spend $50 million, or even more after the inevitable cost overruns, it is worth pausing to double-check that we have the best plan in place to spend that money well. Especially because this school might be with us for 50 years or more.

Unfortunately, I have doubts about the current plan. It is not a terrible plan. But I have a sinking feeling that we have gone through a process over the last four years involving plenty of consultants and meetings, and this has somehow produced a plan that reminds everyone of that old saying: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

So what is keeping the current plan from being a great plan? One thing is tearing down the gym. The gym is perfectly fine, and is probably the only part of the current building worth saving (other than the “Wall of Bad Hair” hallway of grad photos going back to the 1950s).

The cabinet can be assured that within a few months of tearing down the gym, it will have user groups in its offices suggesting it build new indoor space for basketball, indoor soccer, badminton, volleyball and so on. Especially with Whitehorse’s population set to grow with 4,000 new lots in Whistle Bend. Skagway, for example, kept its old school gym when it built a new school (as those who just attended the Buckwheat ski race dinner will know).

Furthermore, the government plans to tear the gym down first and not open the new one for two years or more if the inevitable delays strike. Some Grade 9s I know (my daughter is that age) were complaining that their high school years would by gym-less. I speculated that the Department of Education had a secret plan to win all the long-distance medals at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games by having F.H. students do 10 months of cross-country running and snowshoeing for the next few years (and causing the students to look up “civil disobedience” on Wikipedia.)

There is also the francophone court case. What happens if they rip down the gym and then lose their court case and have to spend millions or tens of millions on additional francophone school facilities? The government would be tempted to push off F.H. work even further.

Then there’s the location. The new school should be built where the skateboard park is. It’s closer to downtown for walking, biking and after-school jobs. It would have a stunning setting by the river where you could put a spectacular outdoor amphitheatre or event space for school and community events. And you could put a traffic circle at Lewes Boulevard and Hospital Road that went into the school too.

The skateboard park is heavily used so you would need to rebuild it. But that’s small change on a $50-million project. It’s probably less than the extra money it will spend on the complicated scheme required to build the new school around the old school while kids are still studying in it, plus several years of busing gym students to the Canada Games Centre.

The current plan also does not include a high-quality theatre. Instead it has a sort of multi-use space with moveable walls. This is because the school’s drama program is at Wood Street. When that ancient building gets torn down in 2025, or whenever, then we won’t have a place anywhere to have a high-school drama program. Or a nice facility for graduation, public speakers and similar events. The Juneau high school has a fantastic theatre and this should be part of the new F.H. too.

Finally, there’s the shop wing. The need to save the shop wing was a key reason why the government decided to build the new school where the current gym is. That way it can be part of F.H. and the students only have a short walk. But I would argue that a bit of distance might be exactly what the trades program needs. One reason for Wood Street’s success with drama and outdoor education is that it is an independent centre. I can see a trades program as a standalone option open to all Yukon students, like today’s MAD and PASE programs. It would have its own administration, updated facilities and a host of partnerships and co-op programs with local construction, trades and mining companies.

Some will object that we have a “process” in place and it has gotten us here. I would respond that no matter what the process, before you spend $50 million you should take a step back and make sure your process has produced the best answer.

The City of Whitehorse had consultants and a process in place when it came up with the lame “Above All Expectations” slogan. Citizens were right to toss that process outcome out the window.

How about this idea? Build the new school on the skateboard park and put the skateboard park somewhere nearby. Save the old gym, and make it the centrepiece of a recreation facility serving activities in high demand or not available at the Canada Games Centre; e.g., racquetball, yoga, tennis or futsal (which is the FIFA-approved indoor soccer format with no hockey boards). You could even save some old classroom space for adult art classes and so on.

And beside the old gym, elevate the F.H. trades program to independent centre status, like Wood Street, and give it the budget and mandate to partner with Yukon businesses to build the best co-op trades program anywhere.

There may be lots of reasons why these suggestions are bad ideas. Other people will have even better ones. But before the Department of Education tears down F.H.‘s gym, it should make sure it has the support – in writing – of F.H.‘s administration, teachers and school council. Heck, it should even ask the students how they feel about going to high school without a gym and in the middle of a construction site for two years.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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