North Vancouver's Argyle school rebuild decision close

The North Vancouver school district will likely decide in the next month whether to settle for a provincially funded seismic upgrade of Argyle secondary - or spend $15 million of its cash to completely rebuild the school.

So far, school officials are leaning towards digging into their own coffers for the more expensive rebuild.

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"I think that would be a preferred option, for both the students and the community," said Franci Stratton, chairwoman of North Vancouver's board of education.

The school board will likely vote on the issue at the end of this month, or the beginning of October.

Detailed cost reports are currently being prepared on both options. So far, ballpark estimates put the cost of a seismic upgrade at about $31 million, while the cost of a complete rebuild would be closer to $46 million.

The situation is somewhat similar to what happened when Carson Graham secondary was identified as needing work to meet current earthquake standards. That high school was initially slated for a seismic upgrade, but officials eventually decided on a $43-million replacement instead.

The difference this time is the province has said it will only pay the cost of a seismic upgrade. A rebuild will mean the district has to come up with the extra money - likely through borrowing that will be paid off through the sale of former school properties closed by the district over the past decade.

The school district is still paying off a $7.2 million debt that the board incurred borrowing money in the early 2000s to pay for renovations on Sutherland secondary and Westview elementary. That debt is supposed to be paid by the end of 2015 through the sale of surplus assets.

Stratton said it's not unusual for school districts to pay for capital projects that aren't fully funded by the province through the sale of assets.

"There are a lot of school districts sitting on surplus property," she said. "There's only so many dollars to fund student programming. Capital is also a big ticket item."

Earlier this summer, the North Vancouver school board voted to sell the shuttered Ridgeway Annex to property developer Anthem for roughly $5.1 million - the first of what could be several school sales in the years ahead.

Argyle has been slated for some kind of seismic upgrade since last year, when the more than 55-year-old school was among 14 schools named by the Ministry of Education as its top priorities for earthquake safety improvements.

The school district has been asking the province to replace the aging structure since 2005.

Three of Argyle's seven "blocks," making up about three-quarters of the school, were constructed from unreinforced concrete blocks, which perform badly during earthquakes.

Such buildings can be upgraded in place by adding bracing and inserting steel rods into

the concrete. That was the approach taken with Windsor secondary in 2006, at a cost of $10 million.

Early estimates had put the cost of seismic upgrades for Argyle at about $21 million.

Stratton said that figure was based on reports that now date back three or four years.

The current Argyle building has a capacity of 1,300 students. But with enrolment figures steadily dropping at the secondary level, a new school would likely be initially built for 1,200 students - with the capacity to expand to 1,500, should it be needed in the future.

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