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Rob Shaw: Surrey growth poses a problem for the promises of the NDP government

Provincial plans for Surrey schools are like 'pouring a pint glass into the ocean,' trustee says
Rachna Singh,B.C.'s first parliamentary secretary for anti-racism
Surrey trustees have unanimously agreed to write Education Minister Rachna Singh that the NDP government is failing students and parents.

Surrey’s school board is appealing to the B.C. NDP government for money to fix dire student overcrowding, warning it will soon have to start stacking portables on top of one another unless the province steps up to build more schools.

Trustees voted last week to send a letter to Education Minister Rachna Singh detailing how the province has only funded 750 net new student seats for September when Surrey’s enrolment is projected to jump by 2,200.

“The letter is to say: minister, provincial government, please look at Surrey’s request again because you’re actually failing the students and parents in Surrey,” said Terry Allen, who is in his seventh term as trustee, chair of the board’s finance committee and who introduced the motion to send the letter, which passed unanimously.

“Extending the classroom space in Surrey by 750 seats is like pouring a pint glass into the ocean. It just doesn’t go anywhere.”

The public rebuke by the Surrey school board is particularly stinging for the NDP government given the heavy political emphasis it has put on the region during the past two election campaigns.

The BC NDP considers Surrey its most important battleground in its quest to win re-election in 2024, and has spent almost half a billion dollars on new schools in the district since 2017.

But the region continues to experience a population boom, as it has for much of the last decade. And the NDP government now finds itself further away than ever before from its 2017 election promise to eliminate Surrey’s school portables.

“We have 361 (portables),” said Allen. “If we continue the way we are, we’re going to have 400 within two years. And we have to purchase those portables, we have to place them, but what we do is place them on playgrounds and all-weather fields.

“So at the end of the day, the schools where we keep placing the portables are actually running out of space. That becomes a dilemma because now you’re saying we’re going to have to stack them.

“I don’t think anybody in B.C. has started to stack portables. So we don’t know what the scenario and costs would be.”

The remarkable image of portables growing to the point where they are stacked on top of each other is not one B.C. New Democrats want to be associated with. The NDP holds seven of Surrey’s nine electoral seats, and four of those MLAs are cabinet ministers. Surrey is also getting a new riding in the next election.

Allen said the situation is worsened by the fact that each new portable Surrey is forced to buy costs $350,000 from its operating budget, which is the financial side of the ledger used to pay for teachers and support staff.

“At the end of the day, when you have to start delving into your operating budget to house students, it gets to the point where I can see that the dilemma of classroom space is going to create layoffs,” he said.

The funding dispute is playing out in education minister Singh’s own riding of Surrey-Green Timbers.

“The growth that we have seen, especially in the last few years, it’s unprecedented,” said Singh. “Just in February we sat with the Surrey school district and talked about how the growth is going, and how to support them in a good way. And those conversations are happening.”

BC United education critic Elenore Sturko, who is also the MLA for Surrey South, said the “double whammy” of the province underfunding the capital budget for new schools is frustrating for parents.

“I think it’s a case of not being in touch with reality,” said Sturko.

“When you’re making grand promises, and then you fail time and time again to deliver on those promises, it soon becomes evident that there’s an absolute lack of leadership from this government.”

Further exacerbating Surrey’s booming population and immigration levels is the planned new Skytrain line through Fleetwood, which the district expects will increase the general population by approximately 100,000 people in the catchment areas of 13 schools.

“Not one inch of our five-year capital plan deals with the Skytrain corridor,” said Allen. “The enrolment from the Skytrain corridor will go through the roof.”

Surrey’s budget for September is still in its early stages. Singh said she wants to meet with the board again to figure out collaborative solutions.

But the NDP’s election promises of building enough schools to catch up to Surrey’s growing population, and then building even more to eliminate all of the portables, seems utterly implausible at this point.

“It will never happen in my lifetime,” said Allen. “Because the growth just continues.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]