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A new school is the best solution, say people in Ross River

The Ross River Dena Council and the chair of the school council in the community agree: repairing the troubled local school building is not a good use of taxpayer money.

Engineers advise re-levelling the troubled school building, but local residents aren't sure that's wise

Structural engineers say the Ross River school is safe to occupy 'from a structural point of view,' but also say it needs to be re-levelled, just two years after undergoing major repairs.

People in Ross River, Yukon, say sinking more money into repairing the beleaguered local school is not a good use of taxpayer money.

And they question how safe the school building is.

Thawing permafrost under the structure has created problems almost since the school first opened in 2001. Structural engineers have said the school is safe to occupy "from a structural point of view," but also say it needs to be re-levelled, just two years after undergoing major repairs.

But people in the community aren't so sure that's the right answer.

James Dick, chair of the Ross River school council, says he's familiar with the building's problems, and what needs to be fixed.

'You've got to think about the children, the safety of the public,' said James Dick, chair of the Ross River school council. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

"My guess is, it's probably gotten worse," he said.

"I think the question that people need to ask, the question to the government, is how much more money do you want to spend on trying to repair that school? Plus you've got to think about the children, the safety of the public."

Dick worries that one day, unstable ground will cause the structure to simply collapse.

"One day, it might happen," he said. "Government's always about safety, so do you want to get to that point where somebody gets hurt in that school? Do you want to wait that long, or have that liability?" 

He says parents are increasingly concerned.

"Most of the comments I always hear? 'We should just build a new school.' I realize that's a big undertaking, even just to get to the planning part of it. But I think eventually that's going to have to happen."

Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn has said the government has not yet decided whether to go ahead with the repairs. He has also not ruled out building a new school.

Ground is 'like a big jelly bowl' 

Jim Chapman raised three children in Ross River. He has grave misgivings about the stability of the ground under the building.

"It's bad ground here, we're sitting on an old river bed. It just gives all the time."

Chapman also questions the school's design.

"I don't know why they built such a big damn building. It only needed to be a single level — you don't need a 30 foot atrium in there. They're going to have this problem every year, it's going to continue forever. The ground is like a big jelly bowl, it just shifts all the time."

Nora Ladue has three grandchildren attending the school. She says the solution is simple.  

"Tear it down. Build another school on rock, where there's no permafrost."

Many people in Ross River believe the whole community should be moved to a new location, about 10 kilometres away. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Ladue isn't alone in suggesting the school be moved. In fact, many people in Ross River believe the whole community should be moved.

Right now, the community sits in a valley beside the Pelly River. Some say it should move to an area about 10 kilometres away, near the Robert Campbell Highway. 

"We do have the junction — they could move the whole community up there," Ladue said.

"And then you wouldn't have all this cracks in the walls, and houses shifting. Plain and simple. You talk about lots of money, well how much money is it going to cost altogether, fixing it year after year after year?"

A growing concern, First Nation says 

For its part, the Ross River Dena Council also has concerns about the school.

"Our thoughts? They should build a new school. We're concerned with the safety of our children," said chief Jack Caesar.

"I think that what [the Yukon government] wanted to do was just do a bit of repair here and there and leave it at that. But I found that, for the record, it was totally unsafe for the kids to return to that school."

'This is a growing concern. It's becoming more apparent that the permafrost is changing,' said Derrick Redies of the Ross River Dena Council. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Councillor Derrick Redies says the First Nation understands the government's predicament. 

"We fully appreciate and acknowledge all the work that has been put into the school, and re-leveling, and so on and so forth. But this is a growing concern. It's becoming more apparent that the permafrost is changing, so I would say a new school would be the best solution."

School is 'heart of the community'

Roberta Dick has a young daughter at the school. But she points out that the building means much more to Ross River, which doesn't have a community centre.

"It's the heart of the community," she said.

Jim Chapman agrees.

"All our local events take place there. It's the centre of town. Everything that happens in Ross River pretty much takes place at the school."

James Dick has advice for Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn.
    
"When the ground is thawing out at a rate like that, that's never going to stop. You've got to start thinking about Plan B — building another school," Dick said.

"Plan A is not working — you can't keep leveling it, and doing it on a yearly basis. And it's going to end up costing more and more money."

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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