The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

U of S childcare expansion plans could be in danger

By in News

University of Saskatchewan students wanting a new childcare centre on campus may have to wait even longer, as plans to expand the existing facilities appear to have stalled for the time being.

The latest plan to expand the number of childcare spots available on the U of S campus calls for the construction of an entirely new building directly west of Souris Hall in McEown Park. With the design of the building nearly complete and capital and operating grants from the provincial government in place, the project is only awaiting approval from the university’s Board of Governors.

But rather than receiving approval from the board, the project may become the latest victim of the university’s financial woes. Citing conversations with Vice-President Finance and Resources Greg Fowler, David Hannah — the associate vice-president student affairs— said the Board of Governors has serious concerns that the university will not be able to find the necessary funding for the project.

“We have been asked to take a serious look at what other options there might be to address the childcare problem without building a new building,” Hannah said.

In addition to a projected $44.5 million deficit for the 2015–16 fiscal year, the U of S is also facing $570 million in deferred maintenance costs to its existing structures. Facilities Management Division Associate Vice-President Colin Tennent said the Board of Governors is concerned with these costs and that they may look to address them before constructing new buildings on campus.

“One of the clear messages we got from the board at that time was that we had to have all the financial resources in hand,” Hannah said, citing the construction of the student health and counselling centres in Place Riel, which came in several hundred thousand dollars over budget.

Hannah will go before the Board of Governors with the current plan for childcare expansion in May. However, this meeting is “for information only” and it is unlikely that any decisions about the project’s future will be made.

Funding for the new childcare facility will come from four sources: grants from the Saskatchewan Government, student fees, the university itself and fundraising done by University Advancement.

A dedicated student fee to fund on-campus childcare expansion has already been approved by the U of S Students Union. Additionally, the university has received a $1 million capital grant to aid in the construction costs of the new centre and a $350,000 operating grant from the Government of Saskatchewan.

The capital grant was initially awarded on the condition that the new childcare facility would open by June 30, 2015. However, when it became clear that the project wouldn’t be completed in this time frame, the university asked the provincial government for an indefinite extension for the grant, which Hannah said they received.

To fulfill its growing need for childcare space on campus, the University of Saskatchewan proposed building a new facility in McEwon Park. However, the project may now be on hold.
To fulfill its growing need for childcare space on campus, the University of Saskatchewan proposed building a new facility in McEwon Park. However, the project may now be on hold.

With childcare expansion in a state of flux, Hannah said University Advancement is hesitant to start an extensive fundraising campaign for a project that may not be actualized.

“The worst thing to do would be to go out and raise a million, a million and a half dollars and then finding out the project is not going to go ahead and then have to give it all back,” Hannah said. “So I think this is where we’re waiting for some clear direction from the board before we go out and start a major capital campaign.”

During and after a presentation to U of S Students’ Council by Hannah and Tennent on March 6, members showed their frustrations with the university’s slow progress on childcare expansion.

“They’ve been working on this childcare centre, designing it and implementing it for years and now that it’s pretty much done, the university is backing out and saying they’re not committed to the building in a new location, so that does cause a lot of frustration because they made a promise to students years ago and now they’re not fulfilling their promise,” said Nour Abouhamra, USSU Vice-President Student Affairs.

Currently, the university has two childcare centres — one in the Education Building and one in the R.J. Williams Building — that have a combined 110 spots for children ranging from infant to preschool ages. However, in response to a growing demand from the campus community for more childcare spots on campus, plans to expand these facilities began in 2010.

The university has since examined a number of options for expanding its childcare facilities. Options explored by the university include expanding the education childcare centre and renovating the seed barn. These possibilities all proved to be too expensive because of the province’s strict regulations for childcare facilities.

Tennent said the cost of renovating existing spaces on campus in accordance with these regulations is often higher than 60 per cent of building costs for a new facility.

Hannah said they received approval from the Board of Governors to pursue the construction of a new childcare facility in March 2013.

The proposed childcare centre at McEown Park would expand the university’s childcare spots by 90 — the maximum number of spots allowed for one facility under the province’s childcare regulations — to a total of 200. Of the 200 spots, 75 per cent would be allocated exclusively to student-parents.

The centre would include two rooms for preschool children, one room for toddlers and one room for infants, all of which have different requirements under the childcare regulations. The facility also has two additional “flex rooms” which can be adapted for any of the three age groups.

With demand for affordable and accessible childcare spots on campus still growing and a reported three-year waiting list for existing spots, frustration from the campus community is also on the rise.

“If the data showed the need wasn’t there, I would understand, but the data shows that the need is there and there’s going to be an increasing need for childcare spots,” Abouhamra said. “They’ve been waiting for this childcare centre for years and now it’s frustrating that they’re backing out.”

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