Fact-checking the provincial planning review: Did city hall really kill off school expansions?
Bonnycastle addition cancelled 5 years ago despite lobbying effort from future premier Pallister
One of the bombshell allegations contained in a provincial review of city planning — a claim Winnipeg derailed multiple school renovations or expansions — is based on a single project that was supported by future premier Brian Pallister and rejected during the waning days of the Sam Katz administration at city hall.
Earlier this week, Manitoba's treasury board secretariat published a review of planning, zoning and permitting in Manitoba that concluded the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department is "dysfunctional" and suffers from a "broken culture" that has angered and frustrated developers.
The 200-page document states Manitoba's public schools finance board, which co-ordinates school construction, "has had considerable challenges dealing with many of the regulatory authorities across Manitoba" and that those challenges "have been disproportionately problematic with the City of Winnipeg."
The review states the province "has been forced to abandon school renovations, expansions and the creation of new day care spots" as a result of "either local government interference or additions arbitrarily requested by municipal employees."
On Tuesday, when the review was published, the treasury board secretariat and the premier declined to identify the affected schools.
Six school divisions operate within the City of Winnipeg. Superintendents or spokespeople for five of them — Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, St. James-Assiniboia, River East Transcona and Louis Riel — said they are unaware of any school renovations or expansions that have been cancelled due to the actions of city staff or elected officials.
But one cancelled project in Pembina Trails School Division does fit the bill. In 2014, city hall rejected a Pembina Trails proposal to add two storeys to R.H.G. Bonnycastle School in Waverley Heights.
The addition would have added eight classrooms to the school as well as 74 new child-care spaces. Southwest Winnipeg desperately needed more classroom space to accommodate for population growth in Waverley West, said Ted Fransen, superintendent of education for Pembina Trails School Division.
Pembina Trails began planning the addition in 2012 and eventually requested a pair of land-use changes to pave the way for the project.
City planners, however, recommended against these additions on the basis there wasn't enough room at the school for parking, picking up and dropping off students or providing waiting areas for buses, according to reports provided to city council.
The planners also did not agree with a proposal to cut into city park space to create room for more buses, parking, and drop-offs and suggested a larger school would make traffic congestion in Waverley Heights worse.
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City hall's board of adjustment first rejected the plan in May 2014. Pembina Trails launched an appeal, supported by Pallister, who was Manitoba's Opposition leader at the time.
"The halt in the construction of that long-overdue project is having a negative impact on the students, families, administration and staff at that school," Pallister wrote in a letter of support in July 2014.
"The Manitoba Progressive Conservative caucus strongly supports the Pembina Trails School Division in its appeals to the City of Winnipeg."
City council's appeal committee nonetheless rejected the school division's appeal on Sept. 24, 2014, less than a month before the civic election that saw Brian Bowman take over from Katz as mayor.
Outgoing area councillor Justin Swandel opposed the expansion, as did his successor Janice Lukes, who campaigned against the proposal — and won every poll in Waverley Heights that October.
"Mr. Pallister had it wrong on that one, because the neighbourhood couldn't handle the traffic volumes," Lukes said Thursday in an interview from Quebec City. "I think maybe he didn't have all the facts."
Lukes, who identifies as a red Tory, said while she agrees with the general gist of the treasury board secretariat review — that Winnipeg must improve the way it deals with development applications — she said she believes the planners got it right when they recommended against the R.H.G. Bonnycastle.
"Even now, four years later, I know that it was absolutely the right decision," said Lukes, who was first elected a month after the expansion was cancelled.
The end of the project, however, forced the school division to forfeit roughly $1 million that was already spent on designing the addition and planning for its construction, said Ted Fransen, superintendent of education for Pembina Trails School Division.
"Because we had been given signals from the city that we would be able to proceed at some point, we already had a contract signed with the builder. The fence was up. There was going to be construction," he said.
The cancellation also created a domino effect where several schools, including R.H.G. Bonnycastle and Arthur A. Leach, had to be restructured to serve different grades of students, Fransen said. Some students had to be moved to South Pointe, as well.
"We ended up having to reorganize our schools and we had to bring in portables, too," said Fransen, referring to temporary classrooms.
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In spite of the cancellation, Fransen said he declined to find fault with anyone at the city.
"We've always had a good relationship with the City of Winnipeg, whether it's the planning staff or the politicians who work with us. We were just very disappointed with the outcome of their decisions," he said.
The City of Winnipeg declined to comment further on any aspect of the provincial review of planning, zoning and permitting.
On Tuesday, both Bowman and chief corporate services officer Michael Jack criticized the review as full of unsubstantiated allegations. The treasury board secretariat based the review on 50 interviews with unnamed sources and did not attempt to corroborate their claims.
Pallister's office did not respond to CBC News requests on Thursday to comment on the review's claim multiple school construction projects were cancelled in Winnipeg, rather than one, or whether the premier himself provided input toward the review.