The potential for stacked portables on Surrey school grounds has caught the attention of city hall, with one Surrey councillor presenting a motion calling for action to address the “crisis” of overcrowding in the district.
At Monday’s (May 1) regular council meeting, Coun. Harry Bains brought forward a notice of motion, calling for a meeting of city hall, the school board, and provincial housing and education ministers “to remediate this crisis situation immediately.”
“The Surrey Memorial Hospital maternity ward is currently birthing one classroom of babies every work day, that will be entering the school system in the future, and whereas the province has made the decision to integrate daycare into the school system, and whereas it takes approximately three-to-five years to build a new school, therefore, be it resolved that the city of Surrey declare that the school facility infrastructure within the city of Surrey is in a crisis which is impacting the delivery of the education that our children need and deserve,” Bains’ notice of motion reads.
Before Monday’s meeting, Coun. Linda Annis suggested in a press release that Surrey’s schools should be built using a Vancouver model that enlists a private-sector partner that builds numerous schools at the same time, while being responsible for building schools on time and within budget.
“Their school designs allow for modular additions that are actually part of the school, unlike portables that are parked next door,” Annis added.
Bains and Annis were responding to an alarm sounded by Surrey school trustees last month. Board members penned a letter to the provincial government on Wednesday, April 26, calling for additional funding to address overcrowding in the province’s largest school district.
“For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be as high a priority as there should be from the provincial government on providing the appropriate funding for us to get the schools built in our district,” Gary Tymoschuk, vice chair of the school board, told Peace Arch News last week.
Surrey school trustees have asked the education ministry to increase capital funding for the construction of new schools. Right now, there are 360 portables in use, with the district looking to purchase about 35 more.
The increased use of portables presents safety concerns for students and staff, both the teachers’ union and the school board said.
With a portable, there is no on-site access to library materials, a gymnasium or a washroom. When a student needs access to resources away from the classroom, there is potential risk while crossing the grounds to get back to the school, Tymoschuk noted.
“The teacher may not have sufficient sightlines to make sure that kid is getting safely from point A to point B.”
The trustee added that each brick-and-mortar structure is built to meet the school’s projected needs, including enough washrooms or a large enough library to accommodate the number of people the building is expected to hold.
Since most schools are operating over their capacity, “it just stretches everything in the school,” Tymoschuk said.
Safety concerns also arise when there are issues of violence in a classroom, said Jatinder Bir, Surrey Teachers’ Association president. Part of the response to an incident is to clear out the classroom when necessary, but the safety implications of this happening in stacked portables is an unknown risk, she said.
“If we had smaller classes, then we would be able to provide better supports for these students, but in this kind of situation – where we have a population boom and a space crunch – and we have the complexities of the classroom… if our class size cap is 30, there’s a reason why there should be 30 kids in a class,” Bir added.
One option to deal with overcrowding, Tymoschuk suggested, is staggering days that individual high school students attend classes – something that has been done in the past.
The union adds that alarms have been raised about overcrowding for years, while different governments have not been able to address the situation.
The issue was raised last month in the BC Legislature, with the current NDP government and the Opposition BC United party blaming each other for the issues the district is facing.
On Monday (May 1), Surrey-South MLA and education critic Elenore Sturko spoke in Legislature, calling on the NDP to step up.
“Parents of children with classes in portables have reported feelings of exclusion faced by these students, feeling like outsiders in their own school, Mr. Speaker. Stuck in isolation from their own peers,” Sturko said, adding that some students have only ever attended classes inside portables.
Minister Rachna Singh said the education ministry is “committed to delivering” modern, safe schools for kids and families, and that “over half a billion dollars in new funding” will create 10,000 new seats – the equivalent of eliminating 400 portables.
However, Lizanne Foster, first vice-president of Surrey Teachers’ Association, accused the government of using Surrey schools for photo ops.
“They use Surrey as a backdrop when they make announcements… down the road from over-crowded schools where kids are in distress every single day,” she said.
“When you have kids squeezed into overcrowded classrooms with no green space and (soon) in double-decker portables, how is that affecting their mental health?”
Bir added that successive provincial governments “can’t keep deflecting” and those in power need to “make education a priority.”
The hope among trustees is that their letter will elicit more provincial funding for capital projects. There are two additional schools that have been approved and are under construction, but at this point, Tymoschuk said, there are no new school announcements upcoming.
“Based on the number of students in portables right now in our district, we need seven elementary schools and two secondary schools to be opened tomorrow just to accommodate the growth,” Tymoschuk said.
The district is in the process buying more portables for next school year, with the cost coming out of the operating budget, which also goes towards funding programs and staff salaries.
Cuts to “choice programs” may be coming if funding is not sufficient, including outdoor learning and French immersion and possible cuts to staff also, the board warned. While cuts to teaching staff would be “restrictive,” Tymoschuk said, it is not yet known which staff members will be impacted.