Why Two New High Schools for Okotoks?

On September 16, 2015, the Foothills School Division (FSD) Board of Trustees decided to build two high schools for Okotoks students. One will be located in Aldersyde, a short drive from the southern edge of Okotoks. The other will be built on the north side of Okotoks – assuming the land meets the necessary provincial requirements. Both will have space for 900 students. The board also plans to continue with its plan to renovate the existing Okotoks high school to serve students in kindergarten through grade nine. The board’s decision addresses crowding in FSD’s Okotoks schools, especially at K-9 level.

Space pressures in our schools

FSD’s Okotoks schools are at an average of 94 per cent capacity – or utilization rate. That number factors in the entire square footage of a school, including spaces that are not typically used for a homeroom class (such as a school gym, library, office, mechanical rooms, etc.). Essentially, having a 94 per cent utilization means our schools are very full. And it’s important to note, 94 per cent is the average for all of our Okotoks schools; some schools have an even higher utilization rate.

Here’s how the Okotoks utilization rate compares to other school divisions this year:
* Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic – both at 85%
* Edmonton Public Schools – 71%
* Rocky View Schools (including Airdrie and Cochrane) – 90%
* Golden Hills (Strathmore) – 64%
* St. Albert Public – 86%

According to provincial government guidelines, when schools reach 85 per cent capacity, it is time to seek provincial funding for new classroom space. School jurisdictions submit capital requests each year, and the province sorts them out according to need.

With such a high utilization in Okotoks’ schools, educators are having to be very creative with existing spaces. For instance we are faced with the following realities this year in Okotoks schools:
* Two elementary classes sharing a learning commons because a traditional classroom is not available
* Four Okotoks schools above 90 per cent utilization (two are over 100 per cent)
* FSD has had to place a hard cap on enrolment at one school and redirect students to two other schools
* FSD has had to add extra modular classrooms to accommodate growth.
“Okotoks is a quickly growing community,” says John Bailey, Superintendent, FSD. “We have anticipated the growth we are seeing and have been working to secure more classroom space. The major challenge has been the lack of school sites available in Okotoks.”

How does a school division get a site for a school?

Provincial law sets out how schools sites are given to a school division. According to the Municipal Government Act, when a developer develops land, it must give 10 per cent of that land to the municipality. Alternately, a developer can sell the land but then must provide the money from the sale (of 10 per cent) to the municipality. The municipality can then choose to designate that land (or cash) as school reserve or as a municipal reserve. Municipal reserves can be used for community parks, etc.

School divisions do not get to choose which land to buy. The land is selected for them by the municipality and then the school division must request it.
How the Aldersyde site came to the table

When the Town of Okotoks indicated to FSD that it would not have school sites available for a number of years, FSD had to seek alternatives.

The Aldersyde site was an option discussed at public meetings in December 2014 and January 2105. At that time, parents indicated that if we moved forward with a school at Aldersyde, they would prefer that it serve older students rather than younger ones. Parents also gave us feedback on other recommendations, which FSD’s board considered and acted on. For more information about these decisions visit: http://www.fsd38.ab.ca/okotoks-community-consultation-related-documents/.

A high school in Aldersyde is a strategic move because it will free up much needed space for K-9 students through the renovation and reconfiguration of our existing Okotoks high school. FSD also welcomed the Aldersyde location because of the significant opportunities the site provides to students, due to its proximity to the Legacy Regional Field House.

With FSD facing significant crowding in Okotoks schools, coupled with future growth projections, we needed to take action to build a new school as quickly as possible, and Aldersyde site allows for that. Accordingly, in March 2015, when the Board reviewed its options, it decided on a school that could accommodate up to 1,800 students. The Board also decided to renovate the existing Okotoks high school to accommodate K-9 students and announced some re-alignments within existing schools to help alleviate crowding over the next few years.

“These decisions are short term solutions,” says Christine Pretty, Board Chair, FSD. “We still have the very real situation of growth facing us and the need to provide high quality learning environments for our students today and in the future.”

How the 32nd Street site came to the table

In late August 2015, the Town of Okotoks publicly announced 32nd Street as potential site for a high school. The Town advised FSD that it was in the process of purchasing the land, which is included in the current annexation proposal.

While there are a number of requirements that must be addressed before moving forward, the north Okotoks site would be a wonderful location for a high school, and FSD is very pleased the Town has acknowledged our need for school sites.

It is important for the public to understand that the Province will not fund a school until municipalities have fully completed the transfer of land to the school division and addressed zoning requirements. Also on the Province’s “Site Readiness” checklist are other requirements such as having power/water/sanitary services up to the property line, land available for parking and playgrounds, and more.

“The Town has indicated to us that it is working on meeting these requirements for the new high school site. As soon as these items are addressed, we will be able to move forward in securing provincial funding,” explains Superintendent Bailey. “The Province has already indicated to us that Okotoks is a high priority because of growth, and it is anxious to see additional schools in the community. We are confident that as soon as the site requirements are addressed by the Town, we would quickly gain provincial funding approval.”

Adjusting FSD’s Capital Plan

Based on commitments from the Town of Okotoks to ready the site on 32nd street for a school, on September 16, 2015, FSD’s Board made the decision to revise its original plan to build a 1,800 student school at Aldersyde. Presented with this new opportunity, the Board will now build two high schools, each with a 900 student capacity. One will be built in Aldersyde adjacent to the Legacy Regional Field House, and the other on 32nd street on the north side of Okotoks. The board’s existing plan to renovate the Foothills Composite High School/Alberta High School of Fine Arts to serve K-9 remains in place.

What’s next?

FSD has retained Gibbs Gage Architects to design the new Aldersyde high school. FSD is pleased to work with such a highly regarded firm, whose work includes the new SAIT building. FSD expects construction will begin in the spring of 2016.

Assuming the Town is able to fulfill its commitments with respect to the 32nd St. site, construction could begin as early as spring 2017.

FSD is eager to collaborate with the Town of Okotoks not only on this high school project, but also on the creation of a long term plan that will ensure future school sites are available to accommodate anticipated population growth.

“Growth is a challenge and opportunity that we can best address as we work together. As we expressed to the Town, our desire is to work together, and we hope they will honour their commitment to be collaborative working partners in the best interest of the students of Okotoks,” says Board Chair, Christine Pretty.

Questions or Comments: Please contact us at FSDInformation@fsd38.ab.ca