Northern Lights Public Schools board members spent part of Tuesday morning pleading with Lac La Biche County councillors to remove a condition on a land transfer that has halted the construction of a new school in Lac La Biche — and stopped $25 million in approved funding from Alberta Infrastructure for the build.
Council did eventually vote in favour of moving ahead with the land transfer … but it took 90 minutes of heated discussions — precious time that could affect community growth, says Karen Packard, the chairperson of the NLPS board of trustees.
Packard, school Superintendent Rick Cusson and other board trustees were at Tuesday’s regular council meeting to address the urgent issue that could finally replace the aging Vera M. Welsh Elementary School. The Lac La Biche school has been the division’s top priority for replacement for three decades.
All council has to do, Packard suggested, is remove a condition on a land transfer of municipal property near the Bold Center that is already ear-marked to be the home of the new Vera M. Welsh Elementary School.
The condition — which Packard said council added to the approved land transfer on July 12, weeks after agreeing to the transfer with NLPS, and after touring Alberta Infrastructure officials around the property — states that the five-acre municipal parcel will be transferred to the school division only if NLPS-owned land around the current Light of Christ Catholic School in Lac La Biche is handed over to the Lakeland Catholic School District.
Up until a few months ago, the Light of Christ School was operating in a building owned by NLPS. That building has now been approved as “surplus” by Alberta Education and NLPS. Discussions about the Catholic school board taking ownership of the building are ongoing. The land around the school, about nine acres, remains NLPS property.
Packard said because of the condition to transfer NLPS land to the Catholic board — a decision that ultimately falls to Alberta’s Education minister and not the local school— provincial officials have stopped work on the approved construction project.
“Unfortunately after county council passed that motion on July 12 … Alberta Infrastructure has directed engineers to stop work on the project until a site is secured,” she said.
Now is the time
NLPS board members sent a letter to Lac La Biche County council on September 21 detailing the government’s decision, and requesting a speedy remedy before provincial officials shelve the entire project indefinitely.
Almost a week after the letter was sent, some on council, including Mayor Paul Reutov, continued to look for ways to secure a “fair” outcome that includes both school divisions.
“The Catholic board is asking us for land as well,” the mayor told the NLPS delegation, explaining that a compromise would be to remove the condition and add a letter of support from Northern Lights saying it would offer the Light of Christ land to the Catholic board.
“All we want is some sort of condition or security that once the land is transferred… the Catholic board will get a piece of land or at least a school as well… Again, we are trying to look after all school boards.”
Council was told that the land has a value and may be required as part of future development plans on the Bold Center property. And even if the land could be ‘banked’ for future use, surplus land transfers need ministerial approval — which can take years to complete.
Despite the repeated explanations, Reutov, along with deputy mayor Sterling Johnson and councillors John Mondal and Kevin Pare held onto the belief that there was time.
“Nowhere do I see any roadblocks by providing or committing a simple letter,” said the mayor, suggesting instead to hold out longer. “If it dies in the hands of the minister and it cannot be done, well then … we are not at that bridge to discuss it.”
“We are actually right at that bridge,” said Packard flatly, trying to explain again that time is of the essence, and council is standing in the way.
“We have been informed that if we want to see this project have shovels in the ground in 2025, we need this sorted within the next week or two.
“There is no time for us to engage in the type of process you want… and we cannot make that commitment. We cannot do any of the things you are suggesting without ministerial approval. And I promise you … that will not happen in two weeks’ time. And I promise you that when the community hears where we are at with this project, there is going to be a lot of concern that this is being upheld and delayed because (council) wants the Northern Lights board to give nine acres of land away.
“That is an inappropriate ask.”
The Deputy Mayor didn’t see it as inappropriate. He sees it as trying to confirm the school division’s intentions for a piece of land that another school board could use. He also suggested that council could hold off on the decision for as long as it takes to get that confirmation.
“We want to know what your intentions are with that piece of property … Is it to turn it over in three years or four years and keep this process going, or do you want to hang onto it for your future needs and you are not willing to do anything with it?” he challenged. “That’s what we are here to find out, because we can make a motion in 10 minutes or two days to remove this (condition) and keep it going — but we want to you guys are also committed to moving this community along with a second school.”
Packard again said there is no approval for a second school — just one — but that opportunity is slipping away by the minute.
“We do not have the luxury of time. We cannot afford to let this project get held up and delayed any longer… We must get the land secured as soon as possible,” she said, enabling the process to get back on track with the government and finally make a 30-year “dream a reality.”
Not all in favour
With more discussions expected, including —suggested by the mayor — one between the municipality and the provincial Minister of Education, councillors voted in favour of removing the conditions from the land transfer agreement. Only Mayor Reutov opposed the decision.
In two followup decisions, council voted 4-2 in favour of requesting a letter from NLPS detailing their plans for the land at the Light of Christ School. Councillors Charlyn Moore and Darlene Benuik opposed, with councillors Mondal, Pare, Johnson and Mayor Reutov in favour.
A final motion to provide the Bold Center land to Northern Lights was approved unanimously with all six elected officials at the meeting voting in favour.
The day after event, Packard released a prepared statement on behalf of the board, students, staff and other community members linked to area schools
“We are grateful that Council approved the site for the new school and agreed to remove the requirement for land to be transferred to another school board,” stated Packard. “Our understanding is that we still have time to complete all of the work required in the design plan phase in order to be approved for construction in the next round of school infrastructure announcements.”
One and two
Vera M. Welsh School has been on the Northern Lights top priority list for 30 years, and has been the number one priority for more than a decade. The building has been described as having a stream that runs through its basement and foundations, and recent air quality tests found elevated spore sample results were higher inside the school than outside. The land around Vera M. Welsh is not considered for new school construction due to groundwater issues and large sections of the property that have no utility access. According to the NLPS 10 year Capital Plan, a budget of more than $20 million would be needed to replace the existing building.
The Light of Christ Catholic School began operating in Lac La Biche in 2016 in the former Dr. Swift Middle School building owned by the Northern Lights Public Schools. The construction of a replacement school with a 365-student capacity to replace the 60-year-old school, along with new land, is the number two priority on the current 2024-2027 Lakeland Catholic School District’s three-year capital plan. Catholic school officials have pegged a new building construction cost at $23.7 million for a new K-12 school.
Representatives from Alberta Education and Alberta Infrastructure will be contact for additional comments.