Do communities have a say in NB school builds?

Comparing the Standard Process & the SS2020 Suggestion for a Way Forward

The process for designing new schools in NB has been the same for decades. Isn’t it time for a change?

Standard New School Planning Process in NB

There is a standard process in place for designing new schools in NB. It’s the same for both the Anglophone and Francophone districts in the province. A representative from the Educational Facilities & Pupil Transportation Branch of the Dept. of Transportation and Infrastructure (DTI) outlined the following process for new builds:

  • A school being considered for closure by the District Education Council (DEC) undergoes a Policy 409 review process.

  • After public meetings, the DEC votes on a recommendation related to the school undergoing the 409 review. This recommendation, plus other priorities identified by the DEC as needing capital investments, is submitted to the Dept. of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD) for consideration.

  • The government evaluates the lists of priorities submitted by DECs in all 4 NB school districts and makes their own recommendations on which projects will go ahead.

  • Once a project gets approval, a Planning Committee is formed. The Planning Committee is chaired by a Senior Project Manager from the Educational Facilities & Pupil Transportation Branch of DTI in Fredericton. This committee can also have

    • District staff representation (including the District Financial Advisor, and possibly also the Facilities Manager and/or Superintendent),

    • The local DEC representative (if they choose to be involved)

    • The principal(s) from the school(s) in question

    • PSSC(s) representation

  • The Planning Committee puts together a plan for the new school and this plan is based on numbers of students and the budget allotted. Once the DEC approves the Education Specifications (Ed Spec)-based design, they forward this design to the government for approval. If approved, the build is tendered out to architects, contractors, etc.

  • In terms of location, the DEC recommends the general area (e.g. “Sackville”), and the Dept. of EECD engages the Dept. of Transportation & Infrastructure to find sites based on the Ed. Specs. decided (mainly related to approx. size). DTI recommends one or more sites to the Minister, who then chooses the location based on the information they’ve been provided.

The approval, planning and building of a new school can take many years (at least 3-6 years, according to ASD-E Superintendent, Gregg Ingersoll), because it is dependent on government priorities and money available.

What role does the community play in the standard process?

It is clear that the community is not a major contributor to the design of new school infrastructure in NB. Community members or actual students in the school in question are not typically on a Planning Committee. In fact, the community is generally only involved if they have fundraised money for “extras”, such as playground equipment or dedicated spaces.

That said, there are some exciting examples of schools in NB that have “extras” beyond what is standard in the Ed. Spec. guidelines. In the Francophone sector, Carrefour Beausoleil (in the Miramichi) and Centre Communautaire Saint-Anne (in Fredericton), stand out for being community centres combined with schools. Why did the community play a large role in planning these schools? It’s because they had secured federal funding that helped pay for community consultation and they followed processes that originated from the community.

If a community fundraises on its own, or secures federal funding for their new infrastructure, then some of those funds can be put towards community visioning sessions. Therefore, community involvement (beyond representation by a PSSC member) in new school builds in NB hinges on fundraising or federal investments.

The Ed. Specs. used to design new schools evolve slowly over time. According to the representative from DTI, it’s probably getting to the point where they are due to be updated. While the Planning Committee is open to some level of discussion on different design ideas that might be brought forward, there is not much wiggle room beyond what is standard (unless the community has fundraised for “extras”). Any design decisions are based on the projected number of students and budget. We know that projections are not always accurate, as evidenced with some recent school builds in Moncton that underestimated student numbers and have had to add portable classrooms within just a few years of opening.

The opportunity to do it differently

Schools are a valuable community resource, especially in Sackville, where education is the main economic driver. As such, well-designed schools need to be a top priority, and having local input and guidance will ensure that schools truly meet the needs of the local community.

SS2020 is proposing that the standard process for designing schools is replaced by one that is guided by the community. Given that it is the local children, teachers, principals, parents and community members that will be engaging with our schools daily, it makes sense that these are the same people involved in designing them. Even Superintendent Gregg Ingersoll acknowledges that local community input is needed in designing schools, yet this is not a part of the standard process.

"People really want to have a say in not only where their school is but what does a school look like, and how does it fit into the community. I think that's something we're going to see more and more in the future and it makes sense."

-Gregg Ingersoll, ASD-E Superintendent

Over the last 3 years, SS2020 has held visioning workshops with the community and has asked for input on the direction education in Sackville might take in the future. These efforts, along with surveys like the recent Thought Exchange sent out by area PSSCs, show that the community wants to have a say in what assets are important for Sackville’s schools. People are not interested in a “cookie cutter” school that does not integrate the many great things that Sackville has to offer.

For example, it’s clear that the Tantramar Wetlands Centre is considered an essential local learning resource; that outdoor learning is valued; that people want to have a voice in any new school’s location; that people are interested in helping design the buildings and grade configurations; that the community is profoundly invested in education… These and other considerations are important parts of the planning process that need community input.

A large part of SS2020 volunteer efforts has been to advocate for local students, teachers and the wider community, and to create partnerships to help ensure that any new school build is a community-driven process. That’s why the SS2020 group has met with countless business leaders, educational experts and political leaders—it has all been in an effort to generate interest in the SS2020 vision for community-integrated education and to look for possible funding sources that could make this a reality.

A series of community visioning sessions, facilitated by experts in innovative school design, would help focus Sackville residents’ ideas into a feasible project. This would ensure that any build is cost-effective, aligns with the community’s vision for education, and meets local needs. At the same time, it would enhance learning opportunities for the students attending schools in Sackville since it integrates local resources and knowledge into the plan. Including the community is now a well established and critical part of school design and build processes in other provinces, but this is not the case in NB. However, community consultation is used in many cities and towns across Canada to build new schools, and it results in infrastructure that works well and makes the community proud.  

We must not forget that students should also play a role in education-related decision-making. Our children spend much of their childhood at school. Yet they are not included in the standard process for building schools in NB. Canada is a signatory to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: the right to express their views freely in all matters that affect them and the right to have those views taken into account when decisions are made. Thus, it follows that students should be empowered to play a significant role in any new school design.

This Might be our only “Kick at the Can”

At present, Sackville’s schools need major upgrades (at best) that will cost many millions of dollars. However, even with this investment, it would simply bring the schools up to minimum building code standards, with little attention to the design and effectiveness of the spaces themselves. Why not use our money wisely and take the lead on a new approach to building new schools? Sackville has an amazing opportunity to strengthen our educational and community infrastructure, and be involved in the process of designing and locating a modern, healthy, energy-efficient, cost-effective, integrated community school.

As the sustainability study unfolds, Sackville has the ear of the DEC. We have received very positive attention for the SS2020 movement and the vision it has developed, on a provincial and national level. We now have a chance to ask for something unique in NB education, something that is custom made for Sackville. A Community Learning Campus, designed by and for the community—a setup that enhances our children’s education and supports all of our teachers—is well within reach.

Our children deserve the best that education has to offer, and we can make it happen if we work together!