COLUMN: Education funding for Surrey is long overdue

Education Minister Mike Bernier’s announcement that $217 million has been earmarked for Surrey school construction projects is welcome.

Education Minister Mike Bernier’s announcement that $217 million has been earmarked for Surrey school construction projects is both welcome and overdue.

The announcement came Thursday at the Surrey Board of Education offices. Bernier was flanked by the five BC Liberal MLAs from Surrey – no surprise, given that a provincial election is just over three months away.

The funds will provide space for 5,200 students, both in new schools and additions.

What is most significant about this announcement is the way work will proceed. For the first time, the provincial government is recognizing that school capital projects must be handled differently in Surrey than in other school districts.

Surrey is the largest school district, but it is also the fastest-growing district – with about 1,000 additional students coming each year.

Lumping Surrey capital projects in with others from across the province has been significant disadvantage for Surrey, as the money has often come much later than it should have, and the same timetables for new projects have been followed.

This too often leads to delays.

Bernier said a Surrey project office will be set up to deal with the new projects. It will comprise both local and provincial officials, as well as experts in school construction.

This unique approach is in response to requests from the board of education, city council, parents and community groups to take the Surrey classroom shortage issue more seriously.

While details about how the project office will operate remain up in the air, it appears it will have more ability to maneuver – seeking bids, getting approvals and cutting red tape in general.

Optimistically, this should mean that when money is made available by the province, a new elementary school or addition can be ready in something over a year.

The current timetable for school construction usually involves at least two years (or longer) from the time the money is available to the time the school opens.

The procedure takes even longer for secondary schools.

Surrey board chair Shawn Wilson said the Surrey School District is “now in the best position we have ever been in to get ahead of enrolment growth.”

This is key to Surrey students getting the best possible education in the best possible facilities. It means the district can actually be prepared for an influx of students, as happened this past year when many Syrian refugee families arrived in Surrey.

The school district shouldn’t have to resort to asking council to hold off on development approvals, as it did last year, in order to play catch up.

The day before Bernier’s announcement, he met with Surrey School Coalition, a group made up of parents and representatives of the business community.

It is asking that the province fund construction of one new elementary school each year, and one new secondary school every two or three years, for the foreseeable future.

The need is greatest in three fast-growing areas, West Clayton, South Newton and Grandview Heights.

A positive and persistent approach to the need for new schools, which contrasts sharply with the whining negativity of the former Vancouver Board of Education (which Bernier had to fire last year), is the best way to secure results.

Thursday’s announcement is a big step in the right direction.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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