Surrey councillor calls for ‘zero tolerance approach’ to school portables

Linda Annis wants district to look at Alberta, Saskatchewan models for ‘bundling’ projects

Surrey councillor Linda Annis is calling on the city, school board and province to take a “zero tolerance” approach to portables in the district.

The Surrey school district presented during the committee-in-council meeting Monday (Jan. 13) about the district’s capital projects.

Surrey currently has 370 portables throughout the district. That’s up from 333 at the start of the 2018/19 school year.

Annis said that if there isn’t a zero-tolerance approach, portables will become a “permanent fixture” in the city.

READ ALSO: ‘Portable explosion’ continues in Surrey, with district predicting $10.7M bill, Feb. 14, 2019

READ ALSO: Why school portables are a ‘way of life’ in Surrey, June 18, 2019

Portable numbers: 1986 to 2014
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“The school district is proposing a budget to reduce that backlog by half over a five year period, but by then, thousands more students will be here,” Annis said in a release Tuesday (Jan. 14). “If we don’t take a zero tolerance approach to the issue of portables they will become a permanent fixture in our city, and students and their tax-paying parents deserve better.”

In September 2018, Surrey school board trustees voted unanimously for a meeting with the Ministry of Education to reduce the district’s reliance on portables by 50 per cent within five years.

READ ALSO: Surrey school trustees want to see reliance on portables reduced by 50% in five years, Sept. 21, 2018

Annis said city hall “has a role to play” when it comes to re-thinking the current method of planning, funding and building schools.

“We’re responsible for zoning, development, and permits. I’d like the city to work with our colleagues on the school board and in Victoria to take a new approach that will get students out of portables permanently.”

One of the “best solutions,” Annis said, is are models in Alberta and Saskatchewan where a public-private partner “bundles multiple school construction projects and builds them at one time.”

She said, as a result, “the private sector partner is responsible for delivering schools on time, on budget, and with savings to taxpayers because of the efficiencies that come with economies of scale and bulk buying.”

During the meeting, Annis asked the district presenters about looking at that model.

Greg Frank, secretary-treasurer, said the district and ministry have looked at that option.

“It’s something that is being looked at in terms of options,” Frank said. “It’s quite often critical… What happened in Alberta was, (the) government said, ‘We’re going to fund 10 schools now and we’re going to tender those together and go out and build them in a wave.’ We have to line up the funding, the planning and the delivery of those together.”

Frank added that it also depends on the marketplace and the availability of trades “and all the other complications that go with it.”

However, in her release, Annis said this model works.

“In addition, their school designs allow for modular additions that are actually part of the school, unlike portables that are parked next door.”

She said she would like to see city hall create a “fast track” process and team to “work on making sure the city isn’t part of the problem when it comes to land assembly, zoning and permits so that schools can be built faster and more efficiently.”

“I believe a growing Surrey is a good thing, but the current model for school construction just doesn’t deliver what we need when we need it,” said Annis.

“Let’s not be afraid to look for good ideas in other places, and for me, Saskatchewan would be a good place to start. If we don’t think outside of the existing process then we shouldn’t be surprised when portables are still with us in the years ahead. They don’t have to be, but we need to do things differently and the city, school board and province all have their part to play.”

SQUEEZING SURREY STUDENTS IN: The causes and impacts of overcrowding in city schools, June 2019

Looking forward, Councillor Steven Pettigrew asked if the district is planning to look at building up for future projects.

Frank said that some of the newer designs “are going higher.”

He said there are plans for a 1,000-student elementary school, “which is brand-new territory for educators.” Currently, the school with the highest capacity (as of September 2018 data), is Woodward Hill with a total capacity of 710 students.

He also said there are plans for an elementary school to be “at least three storeys” and there are a plans to “potentially” go even higher at other sites.

“It’s a trade-off between what works best for the educational environment, versus the cost of land and all the other costs of building them,” Frank said. “We are going higher, we are going bigger.”

MAP: Elementary, secondary school crowd
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lauren.collins@surreynowleader.com

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