OPINION: By Chris Burley
Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Technical School or SCITS as we all know it, is on the chop block of the Lambton Kent District School Board.
When local news made this public in the fall of 2015, it came as a complete shock to most of the community. It was less of a shock to SCITS students and teachers who had heard rumblings of this plan for several years.
By now most of us have heard the boards reasoning for scuttling our beloved SCITS. Enrollment is down, the school is too old, there is asbestos in the building, the cost of maintenance and repairs is high.
There is no denying these facts. However, the truth remains, the same could be said for a lot of other high schools in the LKDSB. While closing SCITS is an option to address declining enrollment and budget shortfalls, it is neither the only nor the best option for our community and the students our school board aims to serve.
I hope to make a serious case for why we need to keep this wonderful educational, cultural and historical standing monument to the greatness of Sarnia open for future generations.
I am not a SCITS alumnus, although I am proud to say, two of my kids attended there. While every high school in our district is special, there is something very different about SCITS.
Looking at the school from Wellington Street, many can appreciate its elegant art deco styling, representing a time when things were built to last. The architecture projects confidence and authority with its brick and arched stone work. Immediately, you feel the respect this building commands.
Inside SCITS, I am always taken aback with a sense of reverence, walking the grand stairways and halls, with their high ceilings, terrazzo floors and dark wooden trim. On the walls, the trophy cases full of former glory, the wall plagues and photos of those students who went before us, many to serve our country in foreign wars and some of whom never returned.
As Sarnia’s oldest high school, it embodies the history of our community. It is a standing monument representing our past and yet it also holds the promise of our future in the students who continue to learn and to aspire there.
The value of the building that stands at 275 Wellington Street can not be quantified by accountants and number crunchers. It is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It represents something that can never be replaced, much in the same way our other historical building do. As the stewards of our community we have to acknowledge this and protect it.
Let’s look at some of the points used to justify closing SCITS. “The school is too old and outlived its serviceable life”.
Not true, this building was built in an era when things were made to last. The fundamentals that schools require today are largely the same as they were when this school was built. If you look at the $10- to $20-million upgrade proposed for St. Clair, you can see that there is indeed money somewhere to make the necessary upgrades to SCITS if we were to close St. Clair.
SCITS has a wonderful auditorium that cannot be easily replaced, nor should it be. The cost to build a new comparable auditorium at St. Clair would be astronomical. Some will say, “SCITS is contaminated with asbestos.”
Yes, there is asbestos in the building, just like there is in most buildings built before 1980, like St. Clair and Northern. Asbestos when managed properly, poses little threat to people. If this was not true, how could all of these affected schools have been kept open since the ban on asbestos was imposed?
Some will say, “The board will save a lot of money by closing SCITS.” The largest savings to be had by closing SCITS come from staff reductions. These same staff reductions would apply if you closed St. Clair.
I would not argue that SCITS is a more expensive building to operate and maintain than St. Clair, if you look at the comparison from a very myopic point of view. In the larger community wide view it becomes blatantly clear that keeping SCITS open and closing St. Clair is the better option.
Let’s look at the greater picture for a minute. If the LKDSB decides to close SCITS, what is the future of that building? This is a large facility, too large for most community groups or small private owners to operate and service. By its very nature it will require some kind of government ownership just to maintain.
If that doesn’t occur, we have another black eye of blight in the city’s core similar to the old Devine Street school, Sarnia General Hospital or the vacant Holmes foundry site.
Many small local restaurants and businesses in the core depend on the patronage of SCITS students; they will be affected for the worse when the school sits abandoned.
Maybe the school board could sell the building? Sure, for how much? If you tore SCITS down to re-purpose the land, you couldn’t sell that land for enough money to recoup the demolition costs. Who are the prospective buyers of vacant land in the city’s core? New home construction? Probably not. No one is building new houses there.
Maybe a large scale residential facility like a nursing home or high rise? Possibly.
In reality this property would most likely sit empty or vacant for years, costing the school board in basic maintenance, only to be sold off for next to nothing in the future. Sounds like a horrible plan all around, doesn’t it?
Let’s look at Option B now. You keep SCITS open and close St. Clair. Similar size staff reductions will save the school board millions of dollars.
You don’t spend the $10-20 million you were going to spend improving St. Clair. We make minimal upgrades and basic repairs to get SCITS into shape. This school at its present size will accommodate the student populations of both schools.
There we have it, we have just saved our beautiful historic SCITS for future generations, saved millions of dollars in staff reductions, saved upwards of $20,0000,000 not having to build a huge addition on St. Clair (to replace an indoor swimming pool and 900 seat auditorium.)
We have spared the city’s core of more urban blight, decay and economic hardship to small businesses. Oh wait, what about St. Clair?
Well, here’s the other upside to Option B. Unlike closing SCITS, St. Clair is not surrounded by small mom and pop businesses that rely on the students daily purchases.
Closing St. Clair High School provides two excellent opportunities. First option being, to re-purpose the empty St. Clair building to an elementary mega school. Our school board has already stated that it would like to build a new school in that area to serve Sherwood Village and surroundings after it closes Confederation Public School.
This plan alone could save the school board millions of dollars in new construction costs. Second option would be to demolish the St. Clair building and sell the high value land for new home construction or commercial development, both of which are already part of the city’s existing plan.
Unlike the city’s core where SCITS is located, the St. Clair site is a much more attractive location for development. This property would not sit abandoned for years and it would be worth a great deal of money to the board to sell.
This Option B seems to make a lot more sense for the school board, the students, the local rate payers, the downtown/Mitton Village business owners and the City of Sarnia.
I admit, I don’t have all the figures at my disposal and my ideas are hypothetical. However, when you look at what the school board is proposing, they can’t pin down the exact costs of implementing their plans and address all of the details either.
I realize that we as a community, are in the unfavourable position of having to close one of our beloved high schools and that there will be winners and losers no matter what the outcome is. Having said that, I really believe it makes the most sense in the big picture to keep SCITS open for future generations.