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Why Surrey shouldn’t hold its breath on B.C. Liberals' $217 million school funding promise

Just before the last provincial election Premier Christy Clark promised $584 million worth of seismic upgrades for 45 schools over the following three years. But four years later just over a quarter of those have been done and over half don’t even have funding agreements in place. Last week they promised $217 million in much-needed funding for the Surrey school district. Will they keep that promise?

Last week's funding announcement in Surrey sounded like great news for the overcrowded school district, but will government keep its promises? Photo: BC government flickr

Last week’s B.C. government announcement promising $217 million in urgently-needed capital funding for the over-crowded Surrey schools sounded like great news, and let’s hope it actually is.

But before anyone breaks out the champagne flutes, let’s have a look at the B.C. Liberals’ track record on following through on pre-election promises when it comes to capital funding for public schools. Spoiler alert: it’s a kind of a downer.

Let’s start in 2005. In the lead up to that year’s provincial election, then-Premier Gordon Campbell promised to upgrade all of B.C.’s seismically at-risk public schools by 2020. We now know that’s not going to happen and government admits it could take until 2030. At the rate things are going, my money’s on it taking even longer than that to get them all done.

B.C.’s Auditor General saw trouble with the school seismic mitigation plan — or lack thereof — as far back as 2008, as it was becoming obvious government was spinning its wheels in terms of getting projects done in anything resembling a timely manner.

They’d downloaded the responsibility to implement the plan to school boards, doing little to support them and their relatively small facilities and planning departments.

In a 2008 report, Auditor General John Doyle said “The incremental capacity that each board needs should be accessible through a suitable program delivery model.

Although the ministry has tried to implement different models over the first four years of the program, it has not yet settled on one that is satisfactory to all stakeholders. We have recommended that an appropriate model be implemented without delay.”

After I was elected to the VSB in 2008 along with a Vision Vancouver/Coalition of Progressive Electors majority, we could see this was a huge problem. Government was  focused on 2010 Olympic Games preparation and over at the VSB we had by far the most seismic projects to do and an over-worked facilities department that was getting exhausted by jumping through government’s ever-moving funding hoops.

The painfully slow, project-by-project approval process was clearly unpredictable and inefficient.

We told the education minister of the day, Margaret MacDiarmid, we needed a dedicated project office staffed with people who could focus solely on the seismic program to meet the 2020 deadline.

That would require government approving multiple projects at once so we could staff the office and take advantage of economies of scale and strategic use of “swing space” for temporary accommodation. Our plea fell on deaf ears, although we continued to make progress and signed several major funding agreements.

We made the same appeal to her successors — George Abbott and Don McRae — with the same result. We sputtered along fighting hill-by-hill battles for each project, encountering new and frustrating hurdles along the way.

Some approvals went through fairly smoothly, while other took years to get approved even after the VSB had fulfilled government’s many, often-changing steps to approval.

When the seismic mitigation program started in 2005, government project funding covered the cost of portables that could be used to house students while their schools were upgraded.

An entire school built of portables was erected on the playfield at Laura Secord Elementary in East Vancouver while the school was gutted, seismically reinforced and rebuilt. It wasn’t a perfect situation – portables have a lot of drawbacks and losing the use of the playfield for two years is not optimal, but at least students could stay on site and the community stayed together.

We didn’t know it at the time but those were actually the good old days.

A few years ago, around 2014, government quietly decided it wouldn’t pay for portables anymore.

So now students will be bussed to other schools that have extra space, even if it means splitting the school up. That’s hard on a school community and can be especially difficult for students with anxiety or other special needs. It can also wreak havoc with childcare arrangements, disrupting the lives of families.

It also means several project plans had to be revised to figure out where students would go during construction when government halted portable funding. That’s not an easy problem to solve if you consider where to relocate an entire high school population. So back to the drawing board for several school plans and more delays.

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