COLUMN: Problem of portables isn’t going away

When classes resume Sept. 3, Surrey schools will be even more overcrowded than they were last year.

The school district expects to have 360 portable classrooms in place when school starts again – up from 333 in the past school year. Enrolment will be up again, but the exact number of new students won’t be known until they actually show up at the schools. In recent years, enrolment has been growing by about 1,000 students each year.

The Surrey Schools Coalition, an alliance of parents, trade associations and businesses, recently sent out a press release stating that the province needs to set up a special growth fund to cover the costs of the portables, given the dramatic growth in the district and the slow pace of new classroom construction. Capital costs for new schools and additions are paid for by the ministry of education, but the cost of portables is paid by the school district from operating funds.

The cost of portables in the coming school year is expected to be $10.7 million, up from $8.5 million in 2018-19. Portable costs were half of that amount in the previous year.

Coalition spokesman Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, said, “Student growth in Surrey is expected to grow by 1,000 new students per year, and simply put, we need collaboration between the province, the district and the City of Surrey.”

This collaboration isn’t always forthcoming, as is the case with one proposed new school in the Clayton area – the neighbourhood I live in.

While funding for the school was announced in March, 2017 by former education minister Mike Bernier (the BC Liberals were still in power), construction work has yet to begin – two-and-a-half years later. The province has put up the money, and the school district has done the work needed to prepare to build the school. However, the city has held up the project by insisting on an outlet for storm water, which must be routed off the school property. The city is working on a storm-water facility to handle the surges of water in wetter months from pending development in the West Clayton area, but work on that project is far from complete.

The school, Regent Road Elementary, was originally scheduled to be open in September, 2020. It is to house 655 students. A revised opening date has not been announced, but based on the pace of school construction, it will likely be delayed by at least two years. A contract to build it has yet to be awarded.

This is just one example of how poorly-prepared Surrey is, in terms of infrastructure, to handle growth and development. Students who learn in portables still get an education, but it isn’t the same as learning within a classroom in a building. Everyone talks about the portable issue – but when it comes to actual action, few are actually doing something about it.

The Clayton, Grandview and Sullivan areas are at the forefront of Surrey communities facing severe classroom shortages.

Parents have been pushing the past and present provincial governments for action, and were hopeful when the NDP formed government and pledged some concrete action on the issue.

Promises by John Horgan during the 2017 election campaign that portables in Surrey would be eliminated are hollow words. The facts show that the problem is getting worse, not better.

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

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