The new NDP government will meet officials in the Sooke school district and other fast-growing regions of B.C. to look at ways to accelerate school construction and reduce the need for portables, Education Minister Rob Fleming said Thursday.
Sooke is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the province, and the combination of that growth and a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that requires smaller class sizes has led to a space crunch this year.
The district will have 19 new portables when school opens next week, in addition to the 35 already in place, board chairman Ravi Parmar said in an interview. Three more will be added during the year.
Fleming blames the situation on 16 years of “under-investment” in school capital projects by the former B.C. Liberal government.
“The symptom of it is portables,” he said.
“My message to parents is: Help is on the way. We’re sitting down with the 10 fastest-growing school districts in B.C. and figuring out how we can deliver more schools, more quickly.
“Other provinces have managed to do this, and B.C. needs to do it, too.”
Parmar said that’s welcome news for his district.
“Certainly, our belief is that portables should be a temporary solution,” he said.
Parmar said the district will be asking the ministry for money to purchase land and allow it to begin construction on new schools as soon as possible.
“We are the fastest-growing district per capita and we are seeing well over 500 students [added] per year over the last three years,” he said. “And call us in a couple of weeks, you’ll probably get a similar number or more.”
Parmar said the district’s top priority is getting approval to expand the new Royal Bay Secondary School, which opened in 2015 and will have nine portables on site this year.
The district also wants a new middle school and five elementary schools.
“It’s very promising that Minister Fleming is certainly putting priority on growing districts,” he said.
“Certainly in Sooke’s case, we’ve shown to ministry staff and others that we know how to get projects to the finish line, on time and under budget, so we’re certainly looking forward to having conversations with them.”
Liberal education critic Dan Davies, a former teacher, disputed Fleming’s claims that the previous government is to blame for the crunch.
Davies argues that the Liberals spent $1.5 billion on seismic upgrades to 164 high-risk schools and added $2 billion to the February budget to build and maintain schools over three years.
“My school board, in Fort St. John, we’re getting a school, because we’ve been growing and growing and growing,” he said. “There is only so much money to go around. We need to be very prudent of that fact and to be looking at where we can put the money to best serve the needs of our students.”
He said former education minister Mike Bernier and his staff “did a great job at putting together the plan to best utilize the dollars that we had.”
Glen Hansman, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, said ministry officials met last week with the union and other groups to discuss strategies to accelerate planning for new schools.
“In the meantime, we’re still going to see thousands of kids in portables,” he said. “That’s going to be the reality for the next couple of years.”
The Greater Victoria School District said last month that it was adding 13 portables at eight schools, including three portables that will be built in-house.
Jason Gammon, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said the district should be looking to reopen schools such as Richmond Elementary, which shut down in 2004 due to declining enrolment.
— with files from Jeff Bell