The grandeur and the miseries of a public school

A building so poorly maintained that it is in danger of collapsing. Some 500 students displaced urgently in another neighborhood. Overcrowded premises. One of Montreal’s most renowned public schools, the Sophie-Barat high school, is having a busy start to the school year. This crisis has sown consternation among parents and has shaken confidence in the public education system, noted The duty.

The place is idyllic: a century-old building surrounded by mature trees, on the banks of the Rivière des Prairies, north of Montreal. The Sophie-Barat school, the only public secondary school in the Ahuntsic district, rivals the private colleges in the neighborhood. Parents from all over town send their children to Sophie-Barat for her Challenge program, which selects students based on their results. The so-called ordinary classes and others in special education also attract crowds.

This school embodies the best that the public school system has to offer. But Sophie-Barat’s star, like dozens of other schools in Quebec, is tarnished by decades of neglect in building maintenance. And by flaws in the implementation of solutions.

A thunderclap sounded in mid-August, two weeks before the return to class: the parents of Sophie-Barat’s students learned that part of the main pavilion was in danger of collapsing because of cracks in the walls. carriers. For this reason, 500 students were told that they would come back to class not in their neighborhood school, but five kilometers away, in a former English school in the Saint-Michel sector.

Gabriel Meunier, who graduated from Sophie-Barat in 2004, is outraged by the fate of the establishment. “I don’t understand why the restoration project is taking so long to complete. It is the only public high school in the neighborhood. And it is about our relationship to history: do we want, as a society, to take care of century-old buildings of such great value? “Asks this former student, now a lawyer in Montreal and president of the Sophie-Barat Foundation.

He is worried about the consequences of the disastrous condition of the main lodge for the future of the establishment. The school’s students will have to live together for years with a major project. Others will have to be educated elsewhere than in their neighborhood school. This increases the appeal of private colleges, which already attract four in ten high school students to Montreal.

Decrepit buildings

The dismal condition of Sophie-Barat’s main building is like the rest of the Montreal School Service Center (CSSDM) real estate stock: 91% of buildings are in poor or very poor condition, reveals the Plan CSSDM 2020-2025 investment director.

No less than 203 of the 224 buildings used by the Service Center are rated D or E on a scale from A (excellent condition) to E (very poor condition). The average age of the buildings is 67 years old.

The reason for the dilapidation of the schools is simple, explains Alain Perron, spokesperson for the CSSDM: “The buildings have not been sufficiently maintained in the past. “

Until the turn of the 2010s, the government allocated only paltry sums to maintaining schools. And those investments weren’t even fully spent on renovations. This was neither a priority for the government nor for the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM, renamed CSSDM in June).

What is going on between school boards and the Ministry of Education? It’s a total mystery. Looks like they’re not talking to each other. No one is accountable.

For example, the CSSDM’s asset maintenance budget was just $ 9 million in 2005-2006; $ 9 million to maintain 200 buildings. “Peanuts! »Summarizes a source. Even more astounding is the amount spent that year on asset maintenance: $ 0. Nothing. This is written in black and white in the 2020-2025 master investment plan.

The budgetary rules of the time allowed school boards to devote the scarce amounts intended for asset maintenance to other missions, explains Serge Striganuk, dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke. “It was not politically profitable to invest in infrastructure renovations, so some school boards were putting that money elsewhere. But others were maintaining their buildings, ”he said.

School renovation budgets have increased gradually over the years, reaching a record $ 220 million for the CSSDM alone this year. It’s unheard of, but the catching up to be done is immense. The Service Center estimates the maintenance deficit of its building stock at $ 1.7 billion.

Colossal site

The School Service Center has known for years that it must undertake major work on its century-old building, but the funds were not available, recalls spokesperson Alain Perron. “It was only in the 2019-2020 budgetary rules that the government launched an appeal to finance these big projects,” he said. The Service Center then submitted a series of projects, including that of Sophie-Barat.

This colossal renovation project of more than 106 million dollars was tabled last January. It is one of the largest planned school projects in Quebec, along with that of the FACE school – another heritage building in need of love – in downtown Montreal.

These renovations will have to take place over several years. They will affect almost all facets of the main Sophie-Barat building. Work of 9.3 million dollars is planned each year for the next three years, indicates the CSSDM’s 2020-2025 Master Investment Plan. The most significant portion of the work is scheduled to begin in the 2024-2025 school year, for a number of years to be determined.

Documents obtained by The duty indicate that asset maintenance work worth $ 9.7 million has been carried out since 2008-2009 on the main pavilion of Sophie-Barat. Work was done on the roof, masonry, ventilation system, alarm system and other building elements.

Other maintenance work of $ 1.9 million was carried out during the same ten-year period: plaster repairs, toilet replacements, disaster repairs …

All this work (asset maintenance and maintenance) of more than $ 1 million per year at the Sophie-Barat school was equivalent to putting a bandage on a cancer, our sources point out. The school administrators knew that they were only postponing the holding of a gigantic construction site, due to lack of will in Quebec.

Maintaining all public infrastructure, not just schools, was not a priority until recently. It took the collapse of two viaducts in Laval, in June 2000 and September 2006, to raise awareness about the need to take care of infrastructure.

The island of Montreal is blocked by thousands of orange cones for the same reason: it is necessary to renovate the sewer and water systems, which have been neglected for decades. The Champlain Bridge and the Turcot Interchange were also rebuilt with billions of dollars because they were in danger of collapsing.

Exasperated parents

Miraculously, the discovery of cracks in Sophie-Barat’s structure helped prevent the worst. Students, their parents and staff were still appalled to learn that they had frequented a building that threatened their safety.

“Fortunately, nothing fell on the heads of the teachers and the students,” said Farida Ali Benali, mother of a junior high school student, with a sigh. Shaken by this story, she withdrew her daughter from Sophie-Barat to transfer her to Georges-Vanier high school (located near the residence of the student’s father), in the Villeray district.

Mme Benali is fed up with dilapidated public schools. Her daughter was to attend Saint-Gérard Elementary School, which was closed in 2012 due to mold. The girl did most of her primary schooling at Georges-Vanier high school, where the children of Saint-Gérard had been relocated pending the reconstruction of their school (which reopened in 2017).

Like many parents, Farida Ali Benali is also shocked by the way the crisis has been handled. Students from the Défi sector, normally educated in the building at risk of collapsing, were transferred to the Sophie-Barat annex, located three streets away. To make room for them, 500 students from regular classes had to leave the annex to go to St. Dorothy School, five kilometers away, in the Saint-Michel district.

Parents of students in so-called “ordinary” classes feel that their children are less regarded than those in the Challenge sector. The Service Center argues that practical reasons – such as staff turnover and the difficulty of offering science classes at St. Dorothy’s School – justify this decision.

Farida Ali Benali is not the only one to have turned her back on Sophie-Barat school. Depending on what The duty has learned, about thirty parents who had enrolled their children in this public school in the north of Montreal instead sent them to another establishment, at the time of the start of the school year.

The Collège Mont-Saint-Louis, a private establishment located in the vicinity, confirms to have been approached by parents of Sophie-Barat after the announcement of the risk of collapse of the secondary school, in mid-August. “We no longer had places to offer, we were full,” explains Sylvie Drolet, manager of Mont-Saint-Louis.

The irony is cruel: this private college is also housed in a religious building classified as a historical monument, the former Maison Saint-Joseph. But this building is not in danger of collapsing, unlike Sophie-Barat. The Mont-Saint-Louis building was renovated in 1982 and extended in 2017. The private college now has brand new sports facilities and a series of new premises spread over two floors.

Quite a contrast with Sophie-Barat, who is in urgent need of expansion. The school is overflowing. Students are eating in the stairwells due to lack of space. The neighborhood is experiencing one of the most significant demographic growths on the island of Montreal: 75 elementary-level classes have been added to schools in the area in recent years. These children will soon be moving to the neighborhood high school …

Paralyzed project

For twenty years, there has been talk of restoring the ruins of a heritage building located next to the Sophie-Barat school. But all expansion attempts failed due to a series of misunderstandings between Quebec and the Center de services scolaire.

This 164-year-old building once housed the Sainte-Sophie day school (named after Madeleine-Sophie Barat, founder of the Congregation of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart), a building of exceptional heritage value that was destroyed by fire. in 1997.

In 2007, the CSDM commissioned an architectural firm to define the broad lines of the expansion and produce sketches. Three years later, a call for tenders was launched to hire architects and engineers. Their mission: to develop a Maison des arts Sophie-Barat with an exhibition hall, teaching facilities and a performance hall that can accommodate 350 people – CSDM students and citizens of the neighborhood.

The project was too ambitious: residents of the neighborhood rejected it by referendum in June 2012. They opposed the height of the proposed building. They also feared an increase in automobile traffic because of the amphitheater.

The CSDM returned to the charge six years later with a new project. The Ministry of Education gave the green light in June 2018 for the expansion into the ruins of the old day school. It was the time of the Lab-École, which aimed to endow Quebec with “the most beautiful schools in the world”. In this spirit, the CSDM announced in December 2018 its intention to launch an architectural competition to highlight this heritage building.

It turned out well: the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) had been elected two months earlier, promising that all school extensions or constructions would be the subject of an architectural competition. To endow Quebec with “the most beautiful schools in the world”, of course.

And then… nothing. A year later, in December 2019 (and therefore a year and a half after the funding granted for the Sophie-Barat expansion), the Legault government still had not authorized the architectural competition.

Minister Jean-François Roberge announced in January 2020 that the government was giving up on holding architectural competitions for schools. This promise would have cost an additional $ 25 million and would have delayed the construction and expansion of schools that Quebec urgently needs.

“We lost a year and a half because of the government,” laments a source at the CSSDM.

In interview with The duty At the end of August, the Minister of Education, Jean-François Roberge, passed the buck to the school board: “On that, the CSDM was hard to follow, I have to say it. I think that decision [de prévoir un concours d’architecture], it was a bad decision. There is a shortage of premises on the island of Montreal, so when you get 30 million to expand and you have the land, you take the 30 million and you expand! “

Liberal MP Marie Montpetit cannot get over this “mess”. “The CSDM was only respecting the commitment of the CAQ by offering an architectural competition! She deplores that all those who seek explanations about this expansion file are encountering a wall of silence from the School Service Center and the Ministry of Education. No one takes responsibility for the difficulties of setting up sites.

“What is going on between school boards and the Department of Education? It’s a total mystery. Looks like they’re not talking to each other. No one is to blame, ”also laments Benoit Guinot, father of a pupil, who sits on the Sophie-Barat school board.

Cry of the heart

The CSSDM indicates that the expansion project is ongoing. Contracts have been awarded to an architectural firm (June 23, 2020) and an engineering firm (August 25, 2020).

In the meantime, the Service Center plans to install up to 30 modular classrooms – which some call “trailers” – on the grounds of the main pavilion on Boulevard Gouin. The aim is to have these temporary premises ready in time for the start of the school year next fall. A shuttle service from the Société de transport de Montréal is also offered to around 100 students out of the 500 displaced in the Saint-Michel district.

The students and their parents wholeheartedly hope that the Sophie-Barat school will be restored to good condition. They speak with emotion of the dynamism of this public school. Like the physical education teacher Éric Laforest, who takes around 30 students to camp in the open air north of La Tuque each winter. French teacher Michel Stringer, who put on a sold-out play in a real theater at the Théâtre Aux Écuries. Math teacher Martin Gaudreault, who helps students present an end-of-year musical.

“Teachers go out of their way to get students interested in school. Young people are less tempted to drop out, ”says one parent.

The ex-student turned lawyer Gabriel Meunier remembers his pride in beating the private schools in the neighborhood of Génies en forêt. “It is a political gesture to attend a public school. We believe in public schools, but the state must also believe in it. “

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