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‘Not much has changed’: Why overcrowding in Surrey schools has persisted for decades

FINAL IN A SERIES: Education minister, longtime trustee weigh in on packed Surrey schools

It’s no secret that many schools in the city are bursting at the seams, with an ever-growing number of portables and new schools needed. In our special series, we will examine how growth is affecting students, parents and school staff alike. Today, the series concludes with a focus on factors that led to persistent overcrowding over decades – and what the plan is moving forward.

Click to read part one, part two and part three.


A Surrey mother, frustrated over her child’s overcrowded Earl Marriot high school, decided to speak up. The school had no cafeteria, which meant teenagers were eating lunch sitting on the floor in the halls.

“I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” she chuckled in a recent interview with the Now-Leader.

That fact led to some parents getting together to lobby for better infrastructure for their children. Three parents turned into eight, and eight turned into 20, then they discovered other schools on the Semiahmoo Peninsula were also underserved.

“We all just kind of banded together and put pressure on, lobbied, and finally got a teaching kitchen at Earl Marriott and an addition plus other facilities in the south,” she said.

The year was 1976, and that mom was Laurae McNally who would go on to get elected as a Surrey trustee and today, still serves on the Board of Education.

Today, Earl Marriot remains overcrowded, some four decades later. As of last September, the school housed nine portables to make enough room for its 1,851 students, seeing as it was only built for 1,500.

“Not much has changed,” mused the trustee, the lone independent on the Surrey Board of Education.

Next fall, the district expects to open the school year with 360 portables. It turns out that’s not a record – in 1998 the district had 372.

McNally was around in those days, having been first elected in 1980, serving on and off over the decades. Over that time, she’s seen governments of all levels and all political stripes come and go, and looking back, she said the process “did not used to be as political as it is now.”

“You could set your clock by the time the boards sent in the budget requests in the fall, and you could set your clock in the spring when the government would tell you what was approved.”

Back in the “olden days,” things were simpler, said McNally. A Surrey trustee used to attend city planning meetings every other Tuesday night, she recalled.

“I went for eight years,” McNally said. “They don’t do it that way anymore, but every second Tuesday we’d meet at the old city hall and have Chinese food and go through the applications that would go to council. We’d tell them the implications.

“Was it time consuming? You bet. Was it worth it? I thought it was,” she continued. “We had a close connection with city hall and, in fact, at that time in the mid-80s, we were growing by 2,000 students a year. It was a huge spurt of growth and so, because we had that relationship with city hall, we had two mayors that actually came to Victoria with us asking for school facilities.

“The late mayor Don Ross came with me and our planner, and said look, there’s a problem with developers moving in before school board gets approval to buy lands, and taxpayers are essentially held to ransom for the cost of the land,” she said. “Or they can’t get land where they need them. So city council proposed to the Minister of Education that if need be, it would buy the sites on our behalf and when approvals came in the following year from the ministry, we’d pay the city back. We did that for several years and it worked very well. We had a close relationship.”

That, plus a “huge” $123 million one-time influx of capital investment in 1991, helped to “catch up a little bit,” she said.

Read also: Why school portables are a ‘way of life’ in Surrey

Fast forward to today, and the relationship between the school board and city council isn’t as close as it once was, and those meeting no longer happen, McNally said. And as for provincial investment, “projects get announced whenever it seems to be expedient for people,” said McNally, like in election years.

“They used to be announced two or three times over, or announced with no money attached,” she said, referring to Liberal reign in B.C. “I must say this provincial (NDP) government is trying to correct that.”

McNally said the Surrey Project Office, set up to try to expedite school infrastructure projects in this city, is helping.

“Everybody is at the table so there can’t be any buck-passing. There still is a lot of the silo effect,” she said, noting different levels of government tend to look after their own interests first.

Buying land today is a “huge problem.”

“Finding it. And the cost of it,” said McNally, “because by the time we get approval to do it we’re paying through the nose. It leaves us as a disadvantage.”

“The other part of it that just amazes me is the amount of money we have to spend out of the operating budget for portables, upkeep of portables (expected to surpass $10 million in the next school year), and money towards new projects, which I think is an utter travesty. That all is money that should go to kids in the classroom and I‘m always just amazed that more parents aren’t screaming from the rafters,” she said, referring to the province’s requirement that the district pony up part of the bill for new school projects. “That never used to happen in the 80s and 90s. This is something that has been fairly recent. I think it’s wrong to mix operating money with capital money. They should be two separate envelopes. That money should be spent on children in the classroom. One million dollars that we have to spend equates to 12 teachers.”

Exacerbating the overcrowding issue is regular amendments to the city’s Official Community Plan by city council, she said, as development rages on in Surrey.

READ ALSO: Surrey school trustee’s call to curb growth ‘hit a chord’

In 2016, McNally put forth a motion – which was unanimously supported by the Board of Education – calling on the Surrey First civic government of the day to “temporarily suspend all new development approvals in the Clayton, Grandview/South Surrey and South Newton regions until the Surrey School District receives adequate provincial capital funding.”

“I could not believe the reaction,” McNally recalled. “A lady brought me baking – two nut and date loaves. I received three or four bouquets of flowers. In two months, I received 1,479 emails. And it wasn’t just parents. It was grandparents. It was just people in the community…they were quite willing to accept growth providing the infrastructure to go along with it. Roads, traffic problems solved. Hospitals that could accommodate people. They didn’t want all these portables at schools.”

Today, she said, the growth is no longer contained to those three neighbourhoods.

“Now, we’re behind everywhere,” McNally said. “Look at Whalley - K.B. Woodward and Kwantlen Park are overcrowded now. I understand the city wants to develop all over but years ago, they would kind of concentrate on one area, get it built out, then move off to another area. Now it’s just everywhere and it’s almost impossible for us to catch up.”

READ ALSO: The struggle for space inside Surrey’s elementary schools, June 13, 2019

McNally said she hopes the provincial school funding formula can change, referring to policy that stipulates a school must be overcrowded before the district can apply for an addition or new site. She argued in a city growing as fast as Surrey, the district should be able to apply for capital funding in areas where it’s obvious new school spaces will be needed - instead of waiting for kids to arrive and then beginning the lengthy process.

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum said on some recent bigger developments, council has told the developer to “phase in their development” so that it coincides when schools would either be expanded or new schools are built.

“I think it’s a lot worse right now, but it’s always been a problem in Surrey, probably for the last 30 or 40 years because the schools were never being kept up with the development and the number of people that wanted to live in Surrey,” said McCallum. “It has been a continual problem over the years, and there’s been different degrees of trying to fix it or work with it.”

But since coming into office, he said, council has had meetings with the ministry school board, including one “very large” meeting with planning staff from the ministry, the city and the district.

“We all sat down in a big room and said, ‘We’ve got to solve these problems,’” he said.

In an exclusive interview with the Now-Leader, Education Minister Rob Fleming said that coming into office in 2017, he was “quite taken aback by how there was a disconnect” between how the previous government made announcements, despite not having “secured financial approvals for actual projects.”

“The cupboard was bare,” he said. “We had to start from square one. We will have to assemble land for schools in some neighbourhoods where there’s already housing built.”

Fleming said he credits McCallum with working with developers in certain parts of the city to say that the school district should be “the first in line” to pick a school site and build a community around that. “We should have been doing that a long time ago. I’m very pleased on the kind of focus he’s bringing. I know he has a lot of priorities, but he has made education and school building a big part of his agenda,” he said.

There is still the issue requiring schools to be overcrowded before the district can apply to the ministry for an addition or new site, but Fleming said “in a sense, we’re ignoring that policy.”

“We’re funding additions… We’re building new schools in neighbourhoods that don’t have them that have waited a long time where housing is literally built up around and there’s no school. We’ve required, in order to move more quickly, a close-working relationship with city hall that we’ve never had before and it’s really a three-way partnership between the Ministry of Education, the school district, and, crucially, city hall that have the planning and land.”

But it’s still a matter of trying to keep up. Sullivan Heights Secondary, the district’s most overcrowded high school, has a 700-seat addition on the way, with a completion date of 2021. However, as of last September, the school already had 1,534 students enrolled in the currently 1,000-seat school.

RELATED: How teens grapple with growth at Surrey’s most crowded high school, June 11, 2019

Asked how the ministry plans to get ahead of the growth at overcrowded schools such as Sullivan Heights, Fleming said, “You have to build another high school; 1,700 is a very large high school and you can’t keep adding and going into 2,000 (students) and beyond.”

Fleming said there are plans to build another high school, “and we’ll probably have to do that every five to seven years.”

“We’re certainly going to have to build a number of elementary schools. We’re doing that now. We have five under development or under construction. Additions are possible and are part of the new spaces that we’re planning to create.

The ministry says right now, there are 11 approved projects under construction and nine under business case development – meaning a combined 9,450 new student seats. Seven thousand of those are expected to be completed by September 2021.

In close to two years in office, Fleming said the province has announced close to a quarter-billion dollars in investments in Surrey.

“Surrey is symbolic of the under-investment we’ve seen in all parts of the province in school infrastructure. Portables have gotten way out of control here, they doubled over the time in office of the previous government and we made a real serious commitment to build schools. It’s not just about getting kids out of portables, but in the process of doing that it’s about building neighbourhood hubs in a fast-growing community like Surrey.”

OUR VIEW: Silos won’t solve overcrowding in Surrey’s schools

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