By: Willa Franks Liburd
I had the opportunity to attend the town hall meeting held recently at the Tucker-Clarke Primary School to inform and update the public about the planned building of a new Basseterre High School in the Ponds area. As many would know, the Basseterre High School (BHS) is currently housed in temporary facilities in the Taylors area near to the Washington Archibald High School since several years ago, when the old site at the Victoria Road/East Park Range area was closed on the basis of reported severe contamination.
The town hall meeting featured presentations from several local experts and regional consultants involved in the planning and preparations for the construction of the school. They included three local experts who head or are consultants for the Public Works Department, the Water Department and the Development Control Planning Board. There were three regional experts/consultants, one representing Stantec, the company that did the environmental impact assessment on the project, and two from Innotech, the contractors.
Also present at the meeting was the Federation’s Prime Minister, the Honourable Dr. Timothy Harris, as well as several of his Cabinet colleagues, including the Minister of Public Infrastructure, the Honourable Ian “Patches” Liburd. The meeting was chaired by the Permanent Secretary in Education, Mr. Vincent Hodge. There was a good cross section of members of the general public present, several of whom later asked very pertinent questions and voiced their concerns especially over the building of the school over a major aquifer.
I was particularly interested in the meeting not only because I was a past student and former teacher of the Basseterre High School and have been following its travails over several years, but also as an economic development planner, I once served as office-in-charge of the Planning Unit during the administration of Dr. Kennedy Simmonds during which time, together with the then Water Engineer and Manager of the Water Department, Mr. Athill Rawlins, we developed and oversaw the preparation of a multi-million US dollar water development project which was funded by the Kuwaiti Arab Development Fund, the first such project in the Eastern Caribbean to be approved by the Fund, as we were told.
In my view, all the presentations were excellent and gave a good overview of the preparatory and planning process involved in the decision to build the school at its designated site. I was particularly struck by the presentation by the consultant from Stantec who gave in very elaborate detail the possible environmental effects of building the school at the designated site at Ponds over a major aquifer and outlined the measures, including the construction of infrastructural systems such as a pond, water towers and sewage system, to mitigate any possible negative impacts on the aquifer and the immediate environs.
The audience was informed by the representative from the Public Works Department that the initial cost of building the school was estimated at $40 million, but was now estimated at $80 million, and that this was an open estimate which could go higher or lower. It is reasonable to expect, I believe, for it to go higher rather than lower and it may be reasonable to expect the final plans to cost closer to $100 million. The Innotech contractors spoke of about 400 jobs to be generated during the construction phase, of which some workers are expected to be brought in from abroad to supplement what is available locally.
My interest was piqued when it seemed that for a $40 million school building on the designated site, another $60 million would need to be spent in constructing the necessary infrastructure to prevent damage to the environs in the form of aquifer contamination and flooding of the Ponds Pasture/New Town area from rain runoff from the school, the latter which the EIA consultant felt was the greater risk.
The audience had been informed earlier that five possible sites had been identified on which to build the new school, including the selected site, one near the RLB International Airport, and the old Basseterre High School site. Three, including the BHS site, were eliminated based on certain criteria, which left the selected site and the one near the airport as the two front runners. The latter was eliminated due to the gradient of the land, its designation as an industrial park which already had occupants, and in particular because it was in the flight path. In regard to distance, it was also not considered ideal for most students in the Basseterre area.
Having heard the various presentations, it begged the question as to whether if a cost-benefit analysis were done for other possible sites, including the existing old site of the Basseterre High School, if it would still have warranted the expenditure of an extra $60 million to prevent possible contamination and negative environmental impact on the selected site over any other possible site.
That is to say, whether, with the level of expertise and advanced technology currently available at the local, regional and international levels, greater consideration could not have been given to identifying any further lingering contamination of the old Basseterre High School site, cleaning it up, demolishing the old structures and having the new school constructed there on ideally a prime location for such a school.
Sometimes we can be lopsided in our vision. It should be said here that the old Basseterre High School site has become an environmental hazard and eyesore in the area due to the ongoing total neglect of the premises. Would that some attention could be given to creating a few local jobs to keep the place clean and secure, until a decision is made on what to do with this prime site.
There is another consideration that has not been given much attention and that is the aspect of social equity. Over the years, various administrations have endeavoured to level the playing field in education and offer greater accessibility for all to high levels of education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. At the primary and in particular at the secondary level, various administrations have sought to do so by building secondary schools throughout the island of St. Kitts to enable the children of residents in those areas to not only have easy access logistically to a secondary school but to enhance the level of education offered at that school, including through a fair distribution of qualified teachers.
The $100 million new Basseterre High School ($40 million of school building and $60 million of mitigating infrastructure), with the many features that have been outlined, will undoubtedly become a major attraction for all – for students, for their parents and for teachers. It is expected to house up to 1,000 students and over 100 teachers. Who will these students and teachers be at any given time? How will they be selected? But also importantly, how will this impact other schools on St. Kitts in regard to their own level of esteem and the relative quality of teaching and educational facilities provided at those schools viz a viz the new Basseterre High School.
No mention has been made to my knowledge of external financing, and the assumption is that the financing will be sourced locally. The local treasury will be paying for the construction from public funds and over time the general population will be paying through their taxes for the heavy maintenance cost that this would undoubtedly call for. So it begs the question: Given existing expertise and advanced technologies, would it not be more rational from a social and economic standpoint to build a $30 to $40 million new Basseterre High School at the old BHS school site once it has been well decontaminated, and use another $60 to $80 million dollars to upgrade all of the high schools around the island, where necessary?
Finally, I would say that the recent town hall meeting on the subject was well needed. I believe that it has given the general public a good birds eye view of what is at stake. If nothing else, it would underscore the importance of the continual maintenance of public buildings by the authorities, and also by those who use the school. It underscored again the importance of good potable water for life and for living and the need to preserve our water resources. I believe the new school, wherever built, will carry on the tradition of the past of high quality education in St. Kitts and Nevis, but I hope that this would not be limited or restricted to one area, but be a model for other schools throughout the Federation.