COLUMN: More student spaces are a start

But latest provincial funding announcement does not address chronic overcrowding in Surrey schools.

The provincial government has come through for Surrey students and parents.

Premier Christy Clark came to Surrey to announce a substantial school building program on Friday, totalling almost $100 million. The program will create space for 2,700 more students, which will take some pressure off crowded schools.

The program will use $74.2 million from the province and $25.3 million from the school district to build two new schools, add 600 seats at three crowded elementary schools in the South Newton-Panorama area, and purchase land for a new elementary school in Port Kells.

One of the best things about the announcement is that the fastest-growing areas of the school district are all included. Grandview Heights gets a new 1,500-student secondary school, which will open in 2020. Clayton gets a new elementary school, to open in 2019.

The 600 seats will be added at Panorama Park, Sullivan and Woodward Hill elementaries, all of which are significantly overcrowded now. The situation has become so dire that parents from some of the schools have been appearing at Surrey council meetings, asking council not to approve new developments in the area until school spaces are available.

This announcement does not address all the overcrowding in Surrey schools. However, it is a step in the right direction.

The province is reluctant to put up the substantial sums required to build new schools or add to existing ones unless it is convinced that those schools will be used many years into the future. Every school, district, including Surrey, has schools that are nowhere close to full – and have few prospects of being full in the foreseeable future.

However, there is substantial development underway in Clayton, Grandview and South Newton and those areas are nowhere near built out. Development will continue for some years. In addition, Surrey is attracting more and more families, due to the lack of affordable homes in areas closer to Vancouver.

There will clearly be the need for these new schools for a long time to come, and the investments by the province and the school district are prudent.

The Surrey Board of Education deserves a great deal of credit for highlighting this as a critical issue in the past month. The board took a strong stand on future developments in the three areas. This move helped galvanize parents and put additional pressure on both the city and the B.C. government.

A provincial election is less than a year away and the eight Surrey seats are critical to the B.C. Liberals. This also helped move this announcement along.

It’s also good to see that part of the program calls for student apprentices to help build the two new schools. B.C.’s Apprentices on Public Projects policy requires apprentices to work on such projects so more young people are connected with skills training.

Surrey has been challenged by infrastructure shortages for decades. For years, students went to classes on shifts at many schools because there was not enough space. More recently, portable classrooms have been used. While this is a good temporary solution, it has limitations.

A definitive step towards providing 2,700 more permanent student spaces is welcome news, but the province needs to remember that this is not the end of the story. There will continue to be overcrowded schools after all these projects are complete. The Surrey School District needs to get regular consideration of its capital needs – not just in the period leading up to a provincial election.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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