Rocky View Schools (RVS) unveiled its 2022-25 Capital Plan on March 8 and one thing is clear – the priority for the public school district is ensuring schools have spaces matching student enrolment.
The top three priorities for the 2022 budget year remain the addition of 700 learning spaces to Bow Valley High School in Cochrane to create 1,400 student spaces, a Cochrane K-5 school with 600 learning spaces in the Heartland community and an Airdrie K-8 school with 900 learning spaces.
The Government of Alberta requires the district to submit the Capital Plan by April 30. The government then uses the submitted Capital Plans to plan provincial funding.
RVS received no funding for its three priorities in the 2021 provincial budget
The three-year Capital Plan speaks to the exponential growth communities in Rocky View County and area have been experiencing, according to Board Chair Fiona Gilbert. At the March 8 meeting, she added this increase is especially being felt at the high school level.
“[The Capital Plan] gives us a snapshot picture of what our needs are going to be for student spaces over the next number of years,” Gilbert said.
Bow Valley High School was built in 2000 and was designed to include a second phase of construction as the population of students increased in Cochrane.
In 2020, the school was at 98 per cent capacity and it is expected to be at more than 100 per cent capacity in 2022, according to Director of Facility Planning Colette Winter. She added the student population of the school has grown by about five per cent a year.
"The need is there now so we would like to build the second phase – it's the highest priority on our list," she said.
Winter added it would be difficult for the only other high school in the town, Cochrane High School, to take on additional students to help ease Bow Valley High School enrolment. Cochrane High School currently sits at 88 per cent capacity.
Overall, RVS will reach a critical point in 2026 when the number of students will outstrip the spaces available in schools. If no capital projects break ground, enrolment will pass the district's capacity of 30,000 students.
Modular units can serve as a short-term solution to address some of the student needs, but the long-term solution remains new infrastructure.
“In the next four years, it will be increasing about another 25 per cent. It’s desperately needed, the new student spaces,” Gilbert said. “Cochrane has boomed with young families and those kids are getting older. We absolutely knew it was coming.”
To help ease the capacity crunch, RVS has requested seven modular units for Bow Valley High School for September 2021. The district has not received confirmation from the provincial government if the units will be received.
The K-5 school planned for Heartland in Cochrane will be essential in matching the town's growing population. In Cochrane, there were 3,792 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 in 2020. Looking forward, it is expected these demographics will increase by about 200 students every year.
In seven years, RVS expects to see another 1,000 K-8 students in Cochrane, Winter said, but the current capacity is for just below 5,000 students.
It takes about three years to build a school from the initial approval stage of funding to the school opening for students.
RVS' 2023 budget year capital requests include schools in Chestermere, Airdrie, Springbank and Cochrane, while the 2024 budget year includes schools in Cochrane, Langdon, Crossfield and Airdrie.
The district has experienced a student growth of about 1,000 students, around four to six per cent, each year. Winter noted 2020 experienced a drop of -3.38 per cent, but that was an anomaly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winter said RVS' growth is double those of larger school districts in Calgary, which is partly due to families with school-age children moving into the city's outskirts communities and partly due to natural growth.
Gilbert said the situation facing schools in Cochrane is a story shared by schools across the province, as the need for new facilities outweighs the current provincial funding that is available.
While it can be disappointing for families to see funding delayed for critical projects for RVS, Gilbert said she encourages them to speak with their MLAs to continue advocating for new student spaces and funding for public education.
“From a Cochrane perspective, families know that we are increasing in enrolments. It’s been a challenge for us for a number of years now as we continue to see the enrolments increase,” Gilbert said. “Rocky View Schools has done a relatively good job of accommodating students as best we can and families have been very supportive.”