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Pembina Trails faces huge bill for school sites

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PEMBINA Trails School Division fears it may have to find more than $10 million to buy future school sites in the massive Waverley West development.

The province will pay the division back -- but not until the Public Schools Finance Board decides the province needs to build each of the schools years, maybe decades, in the future.

"It was a shocker," said Pembina Trails superintendent Lawrence Lussier.

The division found out recently that the city had changed its policy for setting aside land for school sites in new developments, from $25,000 an acre to market value.

Land in Waverley West is running from $200,000 up to $300,000 an acre, he said. The province owns much of the land in Waverley West.

Lussier said the division has learned that the city changed the policy in 2002, but somehow Pembina Trails was able to option two school sites in Waverley West in 2006 for $25,000 an acre.

But when the division started looking at additional sites, Lussier said, a developer told the division school divisions can no longer get an option for possible school sites -- it's buy now, and buy at market value.

Pembina Trails needs up to eight schools for Waverley West, including one high school. Elementary schools are eight to 10 acres, he said. "For a high school, we're looking at 25 acres," Lussier said.

Each elementary school could cost as much as $3 million for land, a high school $7.5 million.

None of the options open to Pembina Trails fits into the province's edict to freeze school property taxes and limit spending increases to the money coming from provincial operating grants each year.

Pembina Trails could raise taxes and dip into depleted reserve funds to buy the land, or it could borrow the money -- which comes with hefty annual interest payments added to the operating budget.

"We're very reticent in terms of going forward," said Lussier, but if Pembina Trails doesn't buy the land before developers plan the subdivisions, there could be no school sites available when the classrooms are needed.

"This could get quite expensive -- we were a little taken aback when we heard about that," said deputy education minister Gerald Farthing.

Farthing said Pembina Trails has options on two school sites until 2012 and 2016 at $25,000 an acre.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2010 A4

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