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Sooke School District bursting at the seams, even with new schools

This story was originally published in The Westshore newsletter, June 16, 2022.

Before its last new school has even opened, the Sooke School District has already announced plans for another new elementary school in the Westshore. The newest school will be in south Langford on Latoria Road, between Happy Valley and Veterans Memorial Parkway.

This school—still unnamed—will be the District’s 15th elementary school, with room for 480 students, and it’s part of a wave of schools trying to meet growing demand. Pexisen Elementary in Westhills has space for 500 students and is set to open in September. The name pexisen was given by the Songhees Nation and means “the opening of hands.” It will share a campus with a new middle school—Centre Mountain Lellum, also preparing to open for the 2022/23 school year.

Even with these three new schools, board chair Ravi Parmar says the school district is straining against its capacity.

The Westshore is the fastest growing area in BC, and there are more young families here than anywhere in Greater Victoria. Langford’s population is almost 18% children under 14 years old, compared to 12.6% across the CRD and less than 10% in Victoria. Colwood, Sooke, and View Royal are also over the local average for young people.

“With 20 to 30-storey condo buildings, I think there was an assumption that it would be folks with no children, or seniors [moving in], but that’s certainly not what we’re seeing,” Parmar said.

Last September the District was surprised by the arrival of almost 400 more students than it had planned for—expecting 450, the schools collectively signed up 850 new students. It was a logistical nightmare to make space, quickly acquire and install portables, and move things around. And there’s no indication that won’t happen again this year; each year’s enrolment has broken the record, and no one expects that growth to decrease.

“An area that is making us most nervous is our secondary schools. Right now Belmont [Secondary School, in Langford] is sitting at 1,600 students; it’s only built for 1,200. We had to close it for new enrolment, so we have families moving into the Langford area and can’t go to their neighbourhood school.” Belmont’s overflow is diverted to Royal Bay, which itself is nearly at capacity. Either this year or next Parmar is confident they’ll start relying on portables there, years before they expected to need them.

District-wide there are 55 classes in portables, which is not only less ideal for learning because it separates students, but it’s expensive, too. Each portable costs a whopping $400K, to buy and install to code.

The Ministry of Education’s goal is for school districts to be at 95% capacity—SD62 is at 120%. Capacity will ease a little when Pexisen and Centre Mountain Lellam open, but Parmar thinks given current trends, within a year they’ll be back over 100% capacity.

The new elementary school announced this week won’t be ready until the 2025/26 school year. In the meantime, SD62 is already planning for three more elementary schools and a high school. The school district already owns the land, they just need the Ministry to agree to pay for the building. They won’t have an answer until next March when the 2023 budget comes out, but in the meantime they’re moving forward with architectural plans and project definitions, hoping the government says yes. No one will be able to accuse the Sooke School District of being too slow, Parmar said.

The new elementary school on Latoria Road cost $8.6M for land, split 90/10 between the province and District, and it has a $40.6M budget for construction, covered mostly by the province.