COLUMN: A challenging balancing act

We must bridge the gap between keeping B.C.’s finances in the black and meeting the challenges faced by the Surrey School District.

There has been plenty of reaction to the Surrey Board of Education’s call for a temporary halt to new development in three areas of Surrey where schools cannot keep up with the growth – Grandview, Clayton and south Newton.

Parents have been applauding the board’s plea to Surrey council to consider the development freeze. Many other citizens recognize the pressure on schools and students, but aren’t quite sure if a freeze is needed.

Mayor Linda Hepner isn’t thrilled about the call. While sympathetic to the challenges the board is facing, she doesn’t see a freeze, even a temporary one, as helping the district get more schools.

She has a point. For many years, the provincial government has not approved funding for new schools or additions until the schools “have seen the whites of their (students’) eyes,” as some trustees put it. If development slows down and students don’t show up in the anticipated numbers, the government will be under no pressure to approve any funds. It isn’t about to change the way it allocates school capital funding.

The government can be criticized for its approach to capital funding. But it has a lot of good reasons for being so careful. In the past, when land was much cheaper and school districts had more ability to direct the construction of new schools, plenty of schools were built in communities such as Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam and other parts of the province.

Now, 40 or 50 years later, many of these schools are half-full and others have been closed. The costs of educating students has risen sharply, largely due to teacher salary increases, but also due to other factors such as new technology, curriculum changes, facility upgrades and a host of other higher costs.

The situation in many rural parts of the province is even worse. I know of one school in the Cariboo where the population has dropped by about 90 per cent. It remains open mainly because of the significant distance away from any other schools.

The high school in Osoyoos is closing for the same reason. There are two schools in the Okanagan town – an older elementary school and the high school, a newer building. Both have far fewer students than they used to. The board decided it made more sense to bus high school students to Oliver – about a 20-minute drive – rather than keep both schools open.

The combination of empty or half-empty schools and rising education costs has caused successive governments to be sparing in building new schools. Surrey, as one of the few districts that is growing significantly, gets hit hard because the government is wary about building new schools. It fears the school-aged population in some of the areas where schools are now bursting at the seams will be much smaller in 20 or 30 years.

Premier Christy Clark has made it clear she recognizes the challenges faced by the school district. However, she was reluctant to consider a different funding approach.

This is likely because one of the key achievements of the B.C. Liberals is B.C.’s top-notch credit rating and balanced budget. When compared to most other provinces, it is indeed far ahead of the pack.

There needs to be some way to bridge the gap between the quest to keep B.C.’s finances in the best shape possible and the large challenges faced by the Surrey school system.

The board of education has offered one possible solution. The mayor has a different response. It is up to the provincial government to come up with a solution that keeps its books balanced, while meeting the needs of Surrey students in a timely fashion.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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