Education minister urges Saanich not to delay seismic work

Education Minister Peter Fassbender is urging the Saanich school district to reconsider plans to delay seismic upgrades at two schools. 

He said in an interview that Saanich trustees seem to have misunderstood a new ministry policy that calls for school districts to use reserve or surplus funds to cover projects such as earthquake-related upgrades.

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“It is not, ‘You have to find the money or the projects will not go ahead,’ ” he said. “That’s not what we’ve said.”

Nor, he said, is it a move by the government to download more costs onto school boards.

“We’re just saying let’s sit down and look at each case on a case-by-case basis and, if there is money there, we would ask that they be willing to contribute,” he said. “If there isn’t money there, the projects will stay in the priority queue, because the seismic-upgrade program is a priority for us.”

He said that while Saanich is within its rights to delay the projects, he hopes they will meet with his staff before proceeding with such a plan.

“What I would say to Saanich is, ‘Why decide not to do something until we’ve sat down and done the due diligence and developed the business case, then looked at the funding?’ ”

Saanich school board chairman Wayne Hunter said he was heartened by the words from the minister, with whom he happened to speak briefly on Friday at the B.C. School Trustees’ Association annual meeting in Vancouver.

“That means they want to talk, which is just fantastic,” Hunter said. “From our perspective, we’re more than willing to sit down.”

The ministry said the new policy stems from a 2010 auditor general’s report that found some public sector agencies were carrying too much cash. Rather than borrowing money to pay for major projects, the government wants to first use surplus cash or money held in reserve by school districts.

“It’s all one taxpayer’s money,” Fassbender said. “If we borrow money, then we have to pay interest on it.”

The policy prompted the Saanich board to vote to delay imminent seismic upgrades at Cordova Bay Elementary School and Parkland Secondary School. Trustees argued that the new policy siphoned money away from other necessary repairs that are usually done at the same time as seismic work.

Hunter said the two parties should be able to come to an understanding.

“Both of us look really bad if we can’t get together and solve this thing.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

jwbell@timescolonist.com   

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