The Surrey School District is putting up $5 million of its own money to get the ball rolling on two long-awaited and much-needed new schools and two school expansions – with the hope that the provincial government will pay the cash back.
The move to front the money, says longtime Trustee Laura McNally, is the first of its kind by a B.C. school board, but is necessary as homes continue to be built at a breakneck pace and schools are busting at the seams in some Surrey neighbourhoods.
“We owe it to our students and our parents to move quickly,” McNally said in presenting a motion to fellow trustees at Thursday night’s public board meeting, which was passed unanimously.
She said residents have been “incredibly frustrated” by school overcrowding and can’t understand why homes pop up continuously, while schools aren’t built until years later.
McNally said it’s no longer an option to wait for the provincial government to dole out capital budgets, as the process has become highly political and entirely unpredictable.
Gone are the days when boards would submit a capital wish list in the fall and find out by February which were approved so they could start planning by spring.
“For the last little bit, we’ve been in limbo. We don’t know when projects will be approved and we just continue to grow,” said McNally.
The $5 million will be used to hire architects to start the lengthy design process for new secondary schools in the swelling Clayton and Grandview neighbourhoods in northeast Cloverdale and South Surrey, respectively, as well as plan two additions on Cloverdale and Grandview elementary schools.
The four projects were Surrey’s highest priorities in the capital funding wish list submitted to the province last fall.
The two new high schools will provide relief for Earl Marriott (EMS), Lord Tweedsmuir (LTS), and Clayton Heights Secondary schools, which are all hundreds of students over capacity. EMS and LTS adopted extended day schedules to accommodate their overflow, with junior and senior grades starting and finishing classes at different times.
The elementary school expansions will ease the strain at Adams Road, near 182 Street and 68 Avenue, and Rosemary Heights (155 Street and 36 Avenue), which each have six portables.
Clayton Heights Secondary has 10 portables, while EMS and LTS have eight apiece.
The $5 million will be taken from the district’s capital reserve fund – money kept for emergencies and unpredictable costs. The board also used money from the reserve (currently sitting at $7.3 million) to help dodge a deficit two years ago.
While fronting the cash for the current projects may appear somewhat risky, McNally is confident the province will step up.
Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg, who has worked tirelessly with McNally to try to find a solution to the school overcrowding problem, is confident Surrey will be reimbursed.
“I don’t think there’s any risk,” said Hogg. “We’re trying to find a way to prevent us being another year behind (on new school planning).”
Hogg received an email from B.C. Education Minister Don McRae Thursday (prior to the school board meeting) assuring that the province would provide written confirmation of reimbursement once the Surrey motion was passed. McCrae confirmed that stance Friday morning.
“By practice, we’ve always reimbursed the districts and in the case of Surrey this would be no different,” he said. “I’m looking forward to addressing some of the growing needs for Surrey – it’s a great district.”
Peter Johnston, principal at EMS, commended McNally and Hogg for thinking outside the box.
“Any speeding up of the process would be fantastic. Earl Marriott is really overcrowded and seems to becoming more overcrowded each year, so the sooner a school is built in the Grandview area the better,” he said.
About 1,000 new residents move to Surrey each month, and of those, 30 per cent are under age 19. McNally said estimates show the Cloverdale/Clayton area will grow by 29 per cent in the next 10 years, with South Surrey not far behind at 21 per cent.
She said Surrey has had numerous meetings and discussions and negotiations over the years with various education ministers, all of whom agree Surrey is in a unique situation with its exponential growth. And yet the progress and solutions have been sporadic at best.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re swimming up the Fraser River against the tide with a log chained to your leg,” McNally said.
The total cost to build the Clayton and Grandview-area high schools is about $35 million apiece, while the additions at the two elementary schools are roughly $3.5 million each. The new Clayton secondary school will be built at 184 Street and 71 Avenue while the Grandview location is at 170 Street and 26 Avenue.
– with Sarah Massah