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AND FRANKLY: It’s time for the province to fast-track new Surrey schools

Grant to cover all costs of moving, acquiring portables would also be appropriate

The provincial government is letting down Surrey students, yet again.

It’s an old, old story, dating back to the 1950s. Surrey continues to grow, leading to more students in schools, and there are significant delays in providing funds to ensure there are enough classroom space for those students.

The results: learning conditions that are rarely repeated anywhere else in B.C.

In the earlier days of this lengthy saga, the solution was to put students on shift. Schools would operate with one set of students coming in earlier and having a shorter day.

They were then followed by a second shift. The students had classroom space, but the whole operating system put a terrific strain on teachers and principals.

In those days, new schools or additions to schools had to be approved by referendum. These referenda were often held separately from municipal elections and the voter turnout was low. Those who did vote were usually motivated to vote against a tax increase, so it was hard to get voter approval to actually do something about the lack of space.

That system changed in the 1970s, with a referendum no longer required. However, this put the control over financing firmly in provincial hands, and successive governments of all political stripes have used school funding for political purposes ever since.

An example from the recent past is a new school in my own Surrey neighbourhood. It was initially promised somewhere around 2015, and funding was approved by the former BC Liberal government in 2017. However, construction of the school did not begin until 2020 and it only opened one year ago – more than five years after funding approval.

Surrey almost always has more students each year. To keep up with the need for classroom space, portables are used. This school year, there will be 335 in use – up 25 from the end of the last school year.

The province requires that much of the cost for using portables be covered through operating funds – not capital funds, which cover construction and renovation costs. This means that other areas of the operating budget must cover portable costs – including acquisition and moving. This means less money for actual instruction, a situation that is not repeated in most other B.C. school districts.

This year, at least $5 million will be spent on moving and acquiring portables. Portables also use up playground space and parking areas, which put additional pressures on schools.

The province needs to start treating Surrey differently and fast-track capital projects in this district, where there will obviously be a growth in the student population for many years to come. The board of education has passed a motion requesting funds for 10 new schools and 17 additions.

The province should also give a grant to cover all costs of moving and acquiring portables, so that students don’t pay the price for provincial tardiness.

The current NDP provincial government has promised that schools in Surrey will be a high priority. It has been in power for six years, but very little has changed for the Surrey school system when it comes to having enough classroom space for all its students.

Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Black Press Media.