COLUMN: Classroom conundrum continues to confound in Surrey

School overcrowding will be a key provincial election issue next spring.

Fresh on the heels of Premier Christy Clark saying last week that there is no need for a “made in Surrey” solution to the severe overcrowding in some schools, the Surrey Board of Education has unanimously asked the city to stop approving development applications in three neighbourhoods.

Grandview, Clayton and south Newton schools are all overcrowded, with portables used to house thousands of students. Meanwhile, the provincial government, which determines when new schools will be built, has been slow to approve new schools for Surrey.

This led to the board agreeing unanimously on April 21 to ask the city 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 to support the many new students moving into these regions.”

The board noted that, even after funding for a new school is approved, it takes two to three years for it to be ready for students. The new high school under construction in Clayton is a case in point. Funding of $10.5 million was announced as an election promise in early 2013, but the final commitment from the province did not come until some time later. Construction on the new school on 184 Street, which will cost about $55 million, began in January. It will not be ready for students until September 2018.

The board’s motion is more than symbolic. Just after work began on the new school, a development application sign went up just across the school site. Developers have assembled a large parcel of land, which will soon have sewer service, partially due to the new high school. They are asking the city for rezoning to allow for 136 new homes to be built on the property.

Many more such applications are expected in that area. The same thing is happening in Grandview and portions of south Newton, where large undeveloped parcels of land can be built on. The rapid jump in housing prices across the Lower Mainland is sending more families with children to Surrey, where housing is somewhat lower-priced than in Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond or the North Shore.

Sunnyside Elementary reflects that pressure. The new school, which opened in 2013 to replace the older Sunnyside school, is expecting as many as 112 kindergarten students this fall. This is at a school with a capacity of 540 students.

Surrey Board of Education Chair Shawn Wilson said the province has constantly boasted of how it is spending more on education – and it is, even as the overall number of students in the province continues to decline. But in growing school districts such as Surrey, funds are not coming nearly fast enough to deal with growth.

Funding is available to educate students, but there are many schools where there is no more room. Portables help fill that gap, but there are limits on how many portables can be put on each school site.

“So it seems to me government looked at the whole picture and said everyone is declining – forgetting that there were some growing districts,” Wilson said.

He said there needs to be a mechanism in place to recognize the uniqueness of Surrey.

The premier did acknowledge that “Surrey has a problem and we’re doing our best to keep up.”

It will be instructive to see how it addresses Surrey’s school challenges in the coming year. After all, politicians are preparing for the next provincial election in May 2017.

School overcrowding will be a key issue in many Surrey ridings.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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