The natural light of a sacrificed Outremont school

Despite promises from François Legault’s government to build the “most beautiful schools in the world,” and despite nearly $2.5 billion infrastructure investments announced in May for the 2022-2023 school year, renovations of schools in Quebec continue to face challenges. with administrative deadlocks and rising building material costs.

Véronique Laberge-Gaudin felt “discouraged” and “powerless” when she learned that the mandatory fire safety improvement started this summer at her children’s school would greatly reduce natural light there. The majority (65%) of the glass surfaces in the corridors and stairwells of Guy-Drummond Primary School in Outremont will be replaced by opaque walls as the Center sought to save the services scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys (CSSMB) $400,000 on a project with a total cost of approximately $1 million.

In June, Véronique Laberge-Gaudin, along with 66 other concerned parents, sent a letter to the service center requesting that the work stop. The signatories argued that natural light is essential for students’ quality of life and success. But their request was denied and work will continue as planned until the start of the school year.

Martin Saint-Jean, another parent and member of the school’s board of directors, criticizes the CSSMB’s lack of transparency. He claims to have been informed about the effects of the works on natural light only “a few months” before the work started. Not having access to the plans for the project, nor having received a satisfactory explanation of the decision to replace the glass surfaces with opaque walls, the parents invoked a request for access to information.

It is also thanks to this request that they learned that the decision was made for the sake of the economy. The difference, compared to a project that let in more light, was initially estimated at $400,000. Today it would be about $580,000. “Why do you have to go as far as requesting access to the plans? The management has plans, which have to be shared,” complains Martin Saint-Jean.

“We are talking about a 40% increase in the total value of the project,” said Jean-François Chalut, director of the CSSMB’s Material Resources Department. According to him, the choice of the School Service Center is explained by budget constraints imposed by the Ministry of Education of Quebec (MEQ), as well as by the rapid increase in the cost of construction projects.

The budgets for such work come from fixed envelopes that are paid annually by the MEQ. Jean-François Chalut claims to have studied “several factors” and taken into account the full dilapidated state of the CSSMB’s building stock, which required other work. “If we decide to pump money into a project, that means we have to cancel a project in another building,” he says.

“In the event of a budget overrun for a particular project [les centres de services scolaires] may revise the programming of the interventions to be carried out in other buildings to cover the observed variation,” confirms MEQ communications director Esther Chouinard.

“This is a file that we believe has been managed in an exemplary manner,” concludes Chrystine Loriaux, CSSMB’s Director of Communications. She also denies that she lacked transparency on this file, as the CSSMB complied with its obligations to inform the school management when making its decisions. It is then up to the school to ‘manage the internal management’, she says, and inform the parents if they wish, stressing that the school is not obliged to do so.

The importance of natural light

“We have a lot of financial problems” [au Québec] at the moment the costs are very high, so it is certain that priority is given to the classroom, at the expense of other buildings,” explains Patric Sabourin, an architect specializing in school projects from Tremblay L’Écuyer Architectes (TLA). “In you don’t just learn life in a classroom, you learn everywhere, so the bright environment is important to me too,” he adds.

Patric Sabourin also notes that projects for new schools and extensions are now systematically subject to ministry lighting requirements, given the importance of this aspect to student success and quality of life. “I’ve worked on it a bit, we see much less absenteeism when the buildings are clear,” he says.

Renovations, on the other hand, such as improving the fire safety of the Guy-Drummond School, are not subject to such criteria. The MEQ also states that 25 new primary and secondary schools have been built in Quebec in the past three years and 68 have been enlarged, but that “thousands of renovation projects are approved every year.”

The future of many projects remains at the mercy of administrative deadlocks, parental actions and school service center management. “What also makes me sad is the realization that we are resourceful parents and there are resourceful staff in the school, but that in schools in deprived areas where there may be less mobilisation, they should be punished even more,” concludes Véronique Laberge- Gaudin.

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