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Controversial school project dogged by cost overruns and construction delays

Cathy Dobson Susan MacKenzie isn’t surprised the new Great Lakes Secondary School is over-budget and a full year behind schedule.
The rebuild of the former St. Clair Secondary on Murphy Road, as it appeared on Aug. 11. Drone photo, courtesy of David Cooke,

Cathy Dobson

Susan MacKenzie isn’t surprised the new Great Lakes Secondary School is over-budget and a full year behind schedule.

“I chalk it up to really bad planning on the school board’s part,” said the ardent SAVE SCITS advocate and founder of the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures.

“They are not qualified to build a project this large. They are in over their heads.”

MacKenzie said frustration lingers among those who fought to prevent the Lambton Kent District School Board from closing SCITS and spending millions to refurbish and expand the former St. Clair Secondary School on Murphy Road.

“I personally showed them (the construction cost at St. Clair) would hit $26 million. If I can figure it out, so should they.”

Instead, trustees opted to close SCITS based on staff estimates St. Clair’s reconstruction would cost $16 million. The number has since ballooned to $25 million.

MacKenzie said the cost overrun and construction delays are proof school trustees don’t understand large construction jobs.

However, waiting a full year before leaving the old SCITS building for the new Great Lakes Secondary won’t hurt the students, MacKenzie added.

“I think all the kids really like it (at SCITS). There’s every reason to like that building. It has all the amenities and it’s a good place for them to learn and be successful.”

School board chair Liz Hudie said everyone is disappointed by the latest delay

“It’s taking so long,” she said.

Concord-based Jasper Construction Corp. was hired to renovate the high school. A recent review found the site wouldn’t be ready by the end of the first semester, as planned.

While part of the building might be ready for student occupation this winter, board officials opted to postpone the move until the start of the new school year next September in case there are further delays.

There’s also a possibility poor weather this fall will interfere with paving the parking lot, said Brian McKay, superintendent of business.

“Besides, the end of January is a tough time to move a school,” he said.

McKay said he and other board officials met with Jasper representatives in early September and asked why the school wasn’t ready on time.

“We were told it’s the complexity of the job,” McKay said.  When pressed for details, McKay said those questions, including questions about availability of skilled trades people, would have to be directed to Jasper.

The Journal sent written questions about the project to two company representatives but had not heard back by press time.

McKay said Jasper is committed to enclosing the new auditorium addition and paving the parking lot “by the time the snow flies.”

“But with the weather being an unknown, it seems too dicey to plan a move in the winter.”

McKay said he takes regular tours of the construction site and the classrooms are almost complete.

“The new ductwork is in, new wiring, new HVAC system,” he said. “And the library is really taking shape.”

A new greenhouse is scheduled to be installed in October.

Chairperson Hudie said the decision to wait another full year to move is the right one.

She was one of only two trustees who didn’t vote in favour of closing SCITS. At the time of the vote, Hudie said she felt St. Clair should be closed because SCITS is “architecturally superior.”

Once she was outvoted it was only proper for her to back the majority, she said.

“So I am right there with them, hoping this is going to be a success,” Hudie said. She is not running for a trustee position in the Oct. 22 election.

In a statement, director Jim Costello said the board’s focus “continues to be on offering the best learning environment for our students and staff.”

Costello has announced he will retire on July 31, prior to the new projected moving date.

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