COLUMN: More schools needed as district grows

The City of Surrey should do all it can to build more neighbourhood schools as the city expands

The City of Surrey should do all it can to assist Surrey Board of Education in its battle to build neighbourhood schools for the growing student population of the school district.

Veteran trustee Laurae McNally, who has seen this movie dozens of times, urged trustees to seek a meeting with city council about rapid growth and the urgent need for more space for students.

McNally first decided to run for trustee back in the early 1980s precisely because of this issue. At that time, there was severe overcrowding in some South Surrey schools and she and other parents proved to the board of the day that the district was not properly planning for growth which people in schools and growing neighbourhoods could see was coming.

Planning became far more precise, and dozens of new schools have been built in Surrey since that time. However, the city has also grown dramatically. It has grown by more than 300,000 people since McNally was first elected – yet the issue of growth and lack of classroom space continues.

Unfortunately, too much power over this issue had been placed in the hands of the provincial government. School districts have basically no say in making decisions on which capital projects should be funded first. Years ago, they did have more say – but they also had to put capital plans to referendum for voter approval. That system was abolished in the early 1970s, of necessity, because people simply would not come out and vote on the issue.

The province is now telling school districts that they need to come up with significant amounts of capital for new projects. The problem with this is that growing school districts have little or no capital available to them.

The province is trying to keep its own capital costs down, and while that is a responsible action, it’s pretty hard to justify in areas like Surrey where growth is ongoing and dramatic.

McNally points out that 1,000 new residents move to Surrey each month. The birth rate in the two Surrey-area hospitals, Surrey Memorial and Peace Arch, is close to 4,000 per year.

Almost all of those babies will be attending Surrey schools within the next five years – as will thousands of other kids who parents do not live here today.

There are 6,000 students in portable classrooms in Surrey right now. That’s considerably more than are enrolled in many B.C. school districts.

The city needs to back the school district for two reasons. One is its own responsibility. Surrey is a pro-development city, and there are lots of development projects underway. The city is encouraging new residents to move here, but they aren’t getting a fair deal if their kids miss out on some aspects of education because of overcrowding or lack of new school construction.

The second reason is that the city has a considerable amount of moral suasion with the current government. Most, if not all, councillors back the BC Liberals, including Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who is the Surrey-Fleetwood MLA. If city council speaks up on this issue, chances are it will be listened to.

The provincial government points out that it’s spent about $300 million on capital projects, land and seismic upgrades in Surrey since 2001. It has, and that’s a good thing. However, capital spending needs to continue at a steady level, because the city has more children living here each month.

McNally is taking her title of trustee seriously. As one entrusted to look out for the education needs of Surrey students, she believes it is imperative to do everything possible to improve their education. That includes building new schools and funding additions in a timely fashion.

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