COLUMN: Time to build schools after reign of error

COLUMN: Time to build schools after reign of error

Likely the first thing the new government can do is to free up funding for school construction

The combination of reduced class sizes and population growth is putting the squeeze on many Surrey schools, as classes resume this week.

The reduced class sizes are due to a final resolution of a long-running battle between BC Teachers Federation and the former BC Liberal government. That battle ended abruptly last November, when the the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government had acted wrongly in arbitrarily removing language over class size and composition from the teachers’ contract.

The initial contract changes took place way back in 2002, near the dawn of the BC Liberals’ 16-year reign, and the final resolution took place very near the end of that reign. Then-education minister Mike Bernier was detailed to work out how many teachers needed to be hired and how much funding would go to districts.

Part of this year’s squeeze is a familiar one. Population growth means there are about 1,000-1,500 new students entering Surrey’s school system each year. This month, 800-1,000 new students are expected, with the total population likely to be around 71,000.

It is, by far, the biggest school district in B.C.

District officials knew months ago that both factors would need to be dealt with. They planned for 168 new classes. Thus far, officials have found space for 155 within existing classrooms. Fifty new portables were ordered but not all are in place yet; all are expected to be ready by end of September.

The NDP campaigned on building more schools in Surrey and are now government.

Cabinet ministers have only been on the job a few weeks. While Education Minister Rob Fleming has visited Surrey to see the situation firsthand, the new government has yet to announce any new schools. Only one is set to open during the new school year – Salish Secondary in Clayton.

Probably the first thing the new government can do is to free up funding for school construction. The former government was often unconscionably slow in making funds available – although in the last few months of its reign, the BC Liberal government did agree to a new process that gave the Surrey Board of Education the ability to move projects ahead more quickly.

Hopefully, the new government will keep that process and improve it it. There needs to be a quick flow of funds for new schools, particularly in fast-growing Grandview Heights, Clayton, Sullivan and Panorama Ridge.

While in some cases sites have been purchased, the process to actually build schools on those sites remains agonizingly complicated. In the past, the province wanted students to be in place before construction funding is approved. That usually added two to three years to the process.

The City of Surrey needs to ensure all permits and approvals for new schools are fast-tracked ahead of all other projects that cross city desks.

There is a pressing need for new classrooms in Surrey. While the current 325 portable classrooms are good short-term situations, the best answer is to build permanent classrooms in areas that will have children for decades to come.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.