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Christy Clark made promises to seismically upgrade schools in her last campaign — she didn’t keep those promises and she’s taking credit for others

In 2005, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell promised to upgrade all of B.C.’s seismically high-risk public schools by 2020. The Christy Clark government has pushed that deadline to 2025 or even 2030, and has made more promises than progress.

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Families for School Seismic Safety builds on Lizards’ success

At the meeting I learned that the Lizards, with their state-of-the-art media skills, were being joined by parents and other community members to form the grass-roots advocacy group Families for School Seismic Safety (FSSS).

They were driven by the knowledge that hundreds of schools were among B.C.’s most seismically at-risk buildings —heavy, brittle, unreinforced masonry held together by gravity, lead paint, asbestos and not much more. One Vancouver School Board (VSB) facilities manager described them to me as “neatly, stacked piles of rubble.”

Chilling words for a parent whose kids were spending their days in one of those buildings in a region at risk of earthquakes.

FSSS was led by three directors — a family doctor and parent named Tracy Monk, Lizard/student Nathan Lusignian and another parent named Eugene Hodgson. I joined in and helped with newsletters, website information and communications support.

I compiled a “tragic timeline” of school collapses around the world. We met in each other’s kitchens and living rooms on Sunday afternoons. Many, many others got involved and helped with lobbying, campaigning and advocating.

Dr Monk sought out experts for advice and support. She wrote academic papers on the issue and presented them at international conferences between meetings with local officials.

In late 2004 FSSS finally convinced Gordon Campbell to commit to a $1.5 billion seismic mitigation program that he said would see all of B.C.’s hundreds of seismically at-risk schools upgraded or rebuilt by 2020.

This was a big promise as the Campbell government headed into an election. The official government announcement of the plan was made at Vancouver’s Sir Guy Carleton Elementary School by the Education Minister of the day, Tom Christensen.

Carleton was one of the “fast-track schools” he named to be completed by 2008. It turned out Carleton was on the slow-or-maybe-never track: it still hasn't received project funding and last summer it was badly burned in a “suspicious” fire.

Today it sits empty behind a security fence and its students attend other nearby schools. It also happens to be in former NPD leader Adrian Dix’s riding of Vancouver-Kingsway.

Sir Guy Carleton Elementary in East Vancouver was one of the school's on the 2005 "fast track" list that was to be completed by 2008. It never got funded or upgraded and now sits empty after it was damaged by a suspicious fire last August. Photo: Patti Bacchus

Carleton wasn’t the only broken promise. The VSB still has dozens of high-risk schools waiting for seismic upgrade funding.

Why all the delays?

One of the reasons I ran in my first election to be a school trustee in 2008 was to ensure government’s kept its promise to upgrade schools. It was clear by then the “fast-track” schools weren’t going to be completed by 2008, and most wouldn’t even have funding agreements in place.

A lot of time, attention and lots of money was being spent preparing for the 2010 Olympic games, the US financial crisis was being felt beyond its borders and people weren’t talking much about school upgrades.

It turned out that despite its funding commitment, government didn’t put enough work into figuring out how they would implement this massive infrastructure upgrade.

They downloaded most of the challenge to cash-strapped school boards and told them to submit funding requests based on complex feasibility studies that met government funding criteria — criteria that has changed over and over again since then.

It seemed to sort of work for a while and we got funding agreements for several VSB projects, but rules kept changing and more than one minister told me it was really tough to get the projects approved by the B.C. Treasury Board.

They didn’t want to upgrade schools that weren’t close to or at capacity and they were worried about “scope creep” — that what started as a seismic upgrade would end up as complete renewal or rebuild of each at-risk school.

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