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The new new F.H. Collins

If I gave you $50 million and told you to redesign a high school in a growing city, could you come up with a design that cut the number and size of classrooms, shrank the gym, replaced the cafeteria with a lobby, and killed half the soccer fields?

If I gave you $50 million and told you to redesign a high school in a growing city, could you come up with a design that cut the number and size of classrooms, shrank the gym, replaced the cafeteria with a lobby, killed half the soccer fields and eliminated the region’s only running track?

If so, please apply to the Public Service Commission for a senior role in the Department of Education.

The sorry saga of the new F.H. Collins school continues.

The department has learned a few things from the process so far, including last year’s student and parent protests at their first F.H. plan (protests, which I was a part of). At the parent information night last week, no ministers attended to present their plans or take questions from the audience. Officials structured the evening as a “drop in” with small presentations spread around the room so the unruly peasantry would never have a chance to congregate and get uppity by asking too many questions in public.

And they only invited current F.H. parents whose kids have a good chance of graduating before the new school is built, not any from the feeder schools who might get really mad.

It’s a clever approach if your communications objective is to avoid embarrassment and ensure the minister doesn’t learn anything unpleasant about your plan from parents (or frontline teachers).

I heard a rumour that one of the Masters of Public Administration programs that people take remotely here was going to use the new F.H. as a case study of dysfunctional northern government decision-making. If true, it would be a good example. It would also be ironic, since Patrick Rouble, the minister responsible for starting the whole thing, completed his management degree from Royal Roads during his time in office.

The case study would start with the original decision to build a new school. I was on F.H. school council at the time. I was expecting to see a business case comparing the cost of the new school with the savings in heat and maintenance with a new building. I was also expecting to see an assessment of how a new building would improve the educational outcomes of students compared to, say, spending the $50 million on extra teachers for the next few decades.

At a professionally run corporation, rigorous analysis for a big-ticket decision would be de rigeur. At the Department of Education, not only did they not show such analysis to mere parents but I got the strong impression it didn’t even exist. Officials waved their hands a lot and said there would be a lot of benefits, but they appeared to have an extreme allergy to numbers.

The next unforced error was a classic, which management gurus have written about as long as there have been management schools. They designed the new school first, incorporating lots of great features, then only realized a year or two later that it was too expensive for their budget. This is why top project managers build the budget parameters into the process from the beginning, and have lots of check-ins throughout the process. If there are signs of trouble, they have time to change course.

In the case of the first new F.H. design last year, they appear not to have realized they blew the budget until the tenders came in. Ouch.

The new new F.H. design is based on an Alberta school. F.H. has a waiting list, and Whitehorse is a growing city, so I don’t know why the government decided to build a smaller school. According to my sources, who prefer to remain anonymous to avoid retribution, the design put out to tender did not have enough classrooms to deliver the current F.H. curriculum.

The word on the street is that F.H.‘s principal actually had to go to meetings at the department and say things like: “The current F.H. building has X classes going on at the same time, so if you build the new school with X minus four classrooms, then where will the other four classes happen?”

The tender has now been re-issued with more classroom space. If management attention is focused, at this late stage, just on getting the number of classrooms right then I wonder what smaller mistakes lurk in the plan.

The government appears determined to build. They have to get construction going next spring if the desired construction jobs are to be created in time for the next election.

Given that the new new F.H. design is going to get built, the question turns to how to minimize the damage.

First, the government should commit to replacing the F.H. field and running track it is destroying; not “maybe,” not “in a few years,” but as a confirmed part of the F.H. plan.

Secondly, they shouldn’t destroy the old gym. Despite its age, this is actually a fine gym. With a new wrap of insulation, it would help serve our growing community where groups already struggle to find enough gym space. If the Department of Education isn’t interested, then give management of it to user groups who use it today such as Basketball Yukon or Volleyball Yukon. Or let the soccer people turn it into another indoor soccer field.

Any of these groups could partner to manage it like the clubs for golf, curling, softball or cross-country skiing manage their facilities. And then we would have two gyms in the same place for big sporting events like the Western Canada Games.

Don’t just bulldoze it. That would be more like vandalism than sensible facility planning.

Full disclosure: I am an F.H. graduate, was on the school council a few years ago and helped protest last year’s decision to tear the gym down and not rebuild it for several years. My kids are current and prospective students.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter @hallidaykeith