The Surrey Board of Education voted unanimously to put a moratorium on the expansion of choice programs until the district has fewer than 200 portables.
The district had 370 portables as of January 2020.
The board approved the staff recommendation at the March 11 meeting. Trustee and board chair Laurie Larsen was absent from the meeting.
The district has four choice programs: French Immersion with 3,255 students in 16 schools; Intensive Fine Arts with 363 students at two schools; Montessori with 577 students at three schools; and Traditional with 809 students in three schools.
This follows the district axing the choice program advisory committees at the Feb. 12 meeting, while also creating a “learning liason” committee.
Trustees Bob Holmes, Gary Tymoschuk, Shawn Wilson, Laurae McNally and Terry Allen all said they were unhappy about what they had to vote on, but felt the measures were necessary.
Holmes said that while he would “really love” to expand choice programs, “it is not sustainable at this point in time, nor realistic and, really, we don’t want to be in a spot where we’re misleading the public.”
He added he hopes the board can look at it again in another year, but there’s “no reason to think the situation is going to be much different in a year or two.”
“Really, we’re just not there anytime soon, unfortunately,” Holmes said. “I’m worried that even when we get to 200 portables, depending on what our growth is, what areas, and where our schools are, even then it might not be realistic.”
Wilson said the moratorium is “necessary” until the district can get enough capital program on the go to reduce the number of portables.
He said there was a time when families were moving out of the district, so choice programs were brought in to fill empty classrooms.
“Catchments were designed to be close to the community where the kids live,” Wilson said.
“I don’t think at the time it was ever contemplated that the reverse of that would occur, but when your ability to provide classroom space is at a pace that is much less than the growth rate in your school district, at some point, you are busting at the seams and you’re going to depend on portables for classrooms.”
Allen said that while it’s a “tough decision,” somebody has to “make those kinds of decisions that serve all the children in Surrey in the appropriate manner.”
He said the “tipping point” for him would be when he’d have to tell a parent they can’t send their child to a neighbourhood school.
“That’s where we’re at. The neighbourhood kids can’t go to their neighbourhood schools and if that isn’t the reason to support this motion, then I really don’t know what is.”
Superintendent Jordan Tinney said the moratorium “outlines something the board has been looking at for a number of years.”
“One of the particular challenges for our board is how do we balance programs of choice which are unique programs and attract their own enrolment to the concept of students having access to their neighbourhood programs.”
Tinney repeatedly used French Immersion examples, including Ecole Woodward Hill, which the district had to reduce its catchment boundary twice because of overcrowding.
“The narrative we’re trying to show there is really intended to show the challenge that faces the board, which is when a school is overcapacity, and has a program of choice, in order to sustain the program of choice and the capacity we end up reducing the catchment for the neighbourhood students. It’s not something we want to do, but it’s what you have to do in order to sustain the program of choice.”
Mary-Em Waddington, Canadian Parents for French Surrey chapter president, said she’s “profoundly disappointed with both the motion and the framing of the report.”
“Canadian Parents for French, in partnership with Surrey Students NOW, has done considerable advocacy at both the City and Province to address the over crowding of Surrey schools because we see the impact this has on all students. The metric of ‘200 portables’ is arbitrary. All this motion does is indicate that the Board has given up on Choice Programs.”