COLUMN: History of school shortages

A letter to the editor by A. McDowall, published May 29 in Peace Arch News and Surrey-North Delta Leader, contained a well-known phrase and coupled it to a current problem in Surrey – the shortage of classroom space, particularly in newer, fast-growing communities.

“Insanity is repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different result. Surrey needs to stop the insanity and change the dynamic between the province and the city,” the South Surrey resident writes.

“Surrey’s municipal government has some control here – they determine what development proceeds in the city. Experience shows clearly that more residential development approvals mean more children requiring more schools.”

The problem of a shortage of classroom space in Surrey goes back to the earliest days of urban development here, which really began in earnest at the close of the Second World War.

The first area to be affected was Whalley, where an influx of wartime workers who were employed in New Westminster industries stayed in Surrey after the war and started to build homes.

By 1949, two new secondary schools had opened, adding to the three existing ones. Elementary schools were opening all over the municipality, from Crescent Park in South Surrey to Harold Bishop in North Surrey.

But by the late 1950s, the influx of residents was far more than schools could keep up with. Many students were “on shift,” with one set of classes going for a shortened day, starting early in the morning, and another starting after lunch and continuing until almost 6 p.m.

It was up to voters to approve funds for new schools through referendums, but getting voters out to the polls was as hard in those days as it is today – particularly as the school referendums were usually held at different times from municipal elections.

I recall the late Don Christian, longtime secretary-treasurer of the school district, telling me how frustrating it was to do all the work to get the referendum ready, only to have it fail because lack of interest caused those opposed to come out in greater numbers at the polls.

This problem continued through the 1960s, and in the 1970s the NDP government got rid of the requirement for a referendum on school construction. The power to decide on school capital funding went to the minister of education in Victoria, and it has resided there ever since.

The trend since that time has been to build new schools when money was flowing into the coffers in Victoria, and tighten up on building when times were tougher. This meant few schools were built in the early 1980s, and more recently, in the mid-2000s.

At the moment, capital funding has again been restricted, as Victoria struggles to balance the provincial budget.

Yet Surrey keeps growing and, in some areas where a large number of new homes are being built, there are no classrooms for the new students who will be moving in with their families. Portable classrooms help ease the problem temporarily, but in the long run, new schools will be needed.

Yet the province needs to be cautious, too. In areas where a lot of schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s – such as Burnaby and Coquitlam – schools have been closed due to a lack of students. A decline in school population has occurred in some parts of Surrey, notably in North Surrey, although redevelopment and higher densities are helping some schools to grow again after years of decline.

McDowall makes an excellent point. If Surrey was to hold up development in areas where there are not enough classrooms, it would soon attract attention from the province.

What is really needed is a better system, where school construction starts when there are a substantial number of new homes actually being built. It wouldn’t make sense to build a school before there are enough students, but one could certainly be under construction simultaneously with new home construction.

The school district – and the city – often have school sites set aside well in advance, and an earlier construction timetable would go a long way towards solving the ongoing problem of lack of classrooms, a problem in Surrey for almost 70 years.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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