The political pressure was on, but few expected such an overwhelmingly positive response from the provincial government on the issue of more space for students in Surrey.
On Monday, Premier Christy Clark came to Hazelgrove Elementary in Clayton, one of Surrey’s newest and most overcrowded schools. She announced the province is committing $353 million to new schools, additional classrooms and the purchase of school sites. About one-third of that money will go to Surrey, the largest and fastest-growing school district in B.C.
The funds for Surrey will go towards a new elementary school in Clayton, as well as one in Newton. They will also be used to expand Fraser Heights and Panorama Ridge Secondaries, which between them have 30 portables on site.
Additional funds will go towards purchasing four school sites, including two to take pressure off Lord Tweedsmuir and Earl Marriott secondaries. Two of the sites will be in Clayton, and the other two will be in Grandview Heights. Both areas are growing rapidly and considerably more growth is expected.
At Lord Tweedsmuir and Earl Marriott, students are on an extended timetable to make maximum use of the limited space. There are about 250 portable classrooms in use in Surrey. There is no let-up in sight to growth, as Surrey continues to attract many young families.
Considerable credit for the additional funds must go to the Surrey Board of Education, Surrey council and the business and parent communities. All have made a persuasive case for additional capital funds for the school district.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon – who represents Surrey-Cloverdale where much of the growth is taking place – has also been making the case for the school district, along with other Surrey MLAs from both parties.
Mayor Dianne Watts has also been instrumental in making the case for new schools. She has probably brought the subject up more often than most Surrey mayors have in the past, as council has often left it up to the school board to make its case.
The concerted effort and solid business case played a big role in Surrey getting so much funding, board of education chair Laurae McNally said.
And the good news is that there will be more. The premier acknowledged that the funds do not meet all of Surrey’s needs and indicated that future funding requests will get a serious look from Victoria.
It is unfortunate and somewhat inexplicable that this situation has been left unresolved for so long. Surrey last received substantial capital funding in 2005, and the most recent new school, Adams Road Elementary in Clayton, opened earlier this year. It’s not that the province has been ignoring capital funding. It has spent substantial sums on health facilities, on the BC Place renovations and on the trade and convention centre in Vancouver. But for some reason, school projects were shoved far down the list.
While this makes sense in the many districts that have been losing students due to changing demographics, it never made sense in Surrey. It appeared that Surrey had got lost in the shuffle, as the prevailing trend was declining enrolment and school closures. While former premier Gordon Campbell said education was a high priority, school districts didn’t seem to get much in the way of capital funds. Clark, who has emphasized the needs of families, seems to have been more receptive.
School capital programs in Surrey have been vote-getters in the past.
In the late 1980s, the NDP made a big deal about Surrey’s lack of funds for new schools, with former premier Mike Harcourt touring numerous facilities while he was opposition leader. When the NDP came to power in 1991, Surrey received considerable funds for needs that had gone untended for some time.
Perhaps Clark is hoping for a repeat when her government goes to the polls in May 2013.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.