There are 333 portable classrooms in Surrey. (File photo)

Education

Surrey Schools Coalition urges province to set up growth fund to pay for portables

‘More needs to be done’ to build new schools as B.C.’s largest district keeps growing

A coalition of parents, businesses, developers and associations is calling on the province to establish a special growth fund for the ever-increasing number of portables at city schools, rather than pay for them out of school district operational budgets.

“Since we started advocating three years ago, there has been some positive momentum forward, but more needs to be done and quicker,” Surrey Schools Coalition spokesperson Anita Huberman stated in a press release.

Last September, the district opened the school year with 333 portables. This fall, it expects to open with 360. Roughly 7,500 students are learning in portables – just more than 10 per cent of the roughly 74,000 students in Surrey’s public schools.

And the price tag for the 2019-20 school year is expected to jump to $10.7 million – funding which could instead be used to hire roughly 100 teachers. That’s up from an estimated $8.5 million for this school year – which was double the year prior.

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“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,” said Huberman, who is also CEO, Surrey Board of Trade.

“We can’t just stop development. How much longer can this situation continue? We need parents to contact their local MLA and tell them we need more funding now and construction of new schools starting faster. This story repeats itself every school year. We want and we need a different story to tell one of these years.”

This past February, the Surrey Board of Education called on the province to help pay the bill.

The board unanimously passed a motion requesting the ministry “provide a special purpose grant to the district to help fund portables costs for the 2019/2020 year.”

This is something the board has done “on a regular basis,” Surrey trustee Terry Allen said at the time.

“I think the pressure continues to mount,” he added, noting he’s “hopeful” the Ministry of Education will help with the portable bill.

“When you put the whole picture together, of what we provide – after school programs, drug counselling, anti-gang programs – you add them all up, it’s millions of dollars. $10 million would make a big difference. We’re saying there needs to be some recognition.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Portable explosion’ continues in Surrey, with district predicting $10.7M bill

OUR VIEW: Silos won’t solve overcrowding in Surrey’s schools

In an exclusive interview with the Now-Leader in June, Education Minister Rob Fleming said he was “sympathetic to the argument” the district made.

“It is through no fault of their own that the number of portables doubled under the previous government,” he said at the time. “What we have done is the portables that were required — and this is most of the new ones — because of the Supreme Court decision on smaller class sizes, the province did pay for those in 2017. The bulk of the new portables this year were related to adult basic education, so they’re getting more student enrolment on what’s outside of the typical five- to 18-year-old, K-to-12 cohort.”

Fleming said the provincial government will “recognize” the issue “in different ways.”

“It should be put into context too that the budget the school district received this year is about $30 million higher. There were tens of millions of additional dollars going out in our very first budget,” he said in June. “The operating dollars available to Surrey, have never gone up as fast as they are going up under our government.”

Fleming said his focus is on getting rid of portables and reducing those costs.

“So I think that’s where the focus should be — building new schools. I think the Surrey school district appreciates when we’re putting in hundreds of millions of dollars to get rid of portables. That’s a better strategy over the short- and medium term to help them manage those operating costs for portables.”

And during a recent visit to Surrey, the Now-Leader asked Premier John Horgan if he is still committed to ridding the district of portables.

“Surrey is the fastest-growing district in the province,” Horgan said, “so our ability to meet a 2015 election campaign commitment is going to be challenging, but we’re going to go at it hard. Again, having a new council and a very, very extraordinary school district, as well as a project office that has a director that they didn’t have before we arrived. I feel comfortable we’re going to make a big dent in that. If we don’t make it, I’ll just have to try harder.”

The Surrey Schools Coalition’s partners include Advocacy for Capital and Education (A.C.E.) Group., Surrey Board of Trade, Homebuilders Association Vancouver and Urban Development Institute.

With files from Amy Reid, Lauren Collins

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