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Another School Of Thought

July 14, 2002
By Raffique Shah

TWO weeks ago I had cause to take the Patrick Manning Cabinet to task for its UNC-style gimmick in education-the awarding of a $1,000 annual book grant to every secondary school student in the country. Today, I write again to warn the government about its misadventure in proposing to build two secondary schools in the one remaining piece of "greens" between Port of Spain and Chaguaramas that has so far eluded greedy land developers. In fact, it's the second such open space. But the other, which is located at the entrance to Goodwood Park, has been removed from the public domain, reserved for exclusive use by children of the elite who reside in that upscale residential district.

If only for that reason, government should move to have the 33 acres at Westmoorings preserved as a nature park for public use. But there are many other considerations that should engage the attention of Cabinet, the prime one being whether the land there, which was mangrove up until the 1960s, is suitable for erecting public buildings. In other words, is the PNM government about to duplicate the UNC's political misadventure in Biche, to commit an environmental sin in the game of political expediency?

Now, I am not to be counted among those who support Lloyd Cartar's view that it's a curse to plant two public schools next to the rich and wannabe-rich residential district of Westmoorings. Lloyd does not, of course, represent the views of the majority of people who live there: most residents are so busy toiling to meet their mortgage payments and other expenses, they have no time to be bothered about another fast foods outlet or a school or even a prison being constructed close to their haven. In fact, many of them may welcome the construction of secondary schools close by, since it would save them the time it takes to drop off and pick up their kids at downtown schools.

Coming to think of it, Lloyd does not even represent the views of the person he purported to do: Hi Lo's Anthony Proudfoot quickly distanced himself from branding the proposed schools a "curse", leaving those who know Cartar well to conclude that he was promoting his own elitist views. The Cartars of Westmoorings and other similar districts do not want hundreds of what they would see as "black hen chickens" running around their neighbourhood. The fact that a nearby shopping mall attracts many such children, or that there are delinquents in Westmoorings who make life hell for residents, has little bearing on the innate prejudices that reside in the minds of such people.

My concerns over erecting schools there are not clouded by colour of skin or social standing. They are more practical. I agree that the existing traffic woes that plague the entire West, which includes Diego Martinl, would be aggravated by further development in that part of the country. Already it's sheer torture trying to get in and out of Chaguaramas when there is any event that attracts large numbers of people. The Western Main Road was built many moons ago to accommodate firstly the small communities that dotted the peninsula, and was later upgraded to meet the requirements of the US naval base at Chaguaramas. With a virtual population explosion in the West, that vital artery has become as inadequate as those of someone stricken with serious cardiac problems.

The road does not allow for expansion: houses and shops sit at its edge in many parts from Point Cumana to Carenage. If anything, a serious government should have long assessed the cost of building a new highway along the coastline, starting somewhere in Port of Spain and filtering traffic straight through to Chaguaramas. That idea has been touted for quite some time, but no government has addressed it seriously. Two new schools at the proposed site would, indeed, add to the traffic problems.

But there is an even more serious concern that I don't know government has considered. I reminded readers at the start that the targeted site sits on what was once lush mangrove. It also straddles the heavily silted, and often flooded Diego Martin River. Will there not be the need for major earthworks before construction is even considered? What about deep piling that would add substantially to the cost of the schools? And will any government guarantee to have the nearby river de-silted on a regular basis, something that is done on rare occasions? Also, what plans are there for relieving traffic congestion for commuters coming out of Diego Martin and districts west of Westmoorings?

If anything, government should re-examine its school-building project with these considerations in mind. It will do no harm to build the new schools on more suitable lands where building costs will be cheaper, and where students will not be subjected to flooding and the effects of pollution from the mostly stagnant waters in the nearby river. The government must not be seen to pursue the construction of those schools at prohibitive costs to taxpayers, only to satisfy the whims of those who want to engage in a "battle of the classes". Or worse, to impress voters (which the PNM does not need, given its commanding lead in that area) the way the UNC did in Biche and at the sub-standard "Millennium Airport".

Should Cabinet so decide-and in this regard it was reassuring to hear Planning Minister Keith Rowley say that Cabinet was open to discussions and suggestions-then any change in location must not give the likes of Cartar even a whiff of "victory over Black people". That parcel of land is public property and it's ideally suited for a mini-nature park, a recreation site just outside the city. Sure, the 33-acre block may well be worth its square footage in gold-if some developer gets his greedy hands on it. No such injustice must be allowed. Keep it in the hands of the State, and in the name of the people of the Republic. And if at all it is decided to have it converted to a housing settlement, let it be an NHA project that will accommodate ordinary citizens who could never afford the manipulated million-dollar-tags on some two-by-two properties that were constructed on reclaimed land.

Only recently I was told that one prestigious building in that vicinity is already experiencing problems. Water is said to be seeping into the basement and the foundation may well be threatened. Please, leave that kind of headache to Cartar and his crew. Spare the public another Biche-in-the-West, a woeful waste of public funds.

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