The NDP government plans to accelerate the planning, approval and construction of new schools to make up for years of “neglect” by the former Liberal administration, Education Minister Rob Fleming said in an interview.
A week into his new job, Fleming said it’s clear that one of his toughest tasks will be dealing with a backlog of school repairs as well as the shortage of schools in booming regions of the province such as Sooke School District.
“In some ways, our biggest challenge is dealing with the physical neglect of school assets all over B.C.,” he said. “We had a very good idea that this was going to be a huge challenge.
“I think it’s since become even more evident that not only did the government mislead and neglect parents, kids and staff who work in seismically unsafe buildings, they failed to keep up with school construction in fast-growing parts of the province.”
The Sooke School District has indicated that it will need at least 19 portable classrooms this year to deal with a student population expected to increase by about 1,800 over the next five years. The district is trying to secure land for additional schools.
Fleming said the Liberal government should have dealt with the issue long ago. “They knew that there was demographic shift and a ‘baby bump’ happening, beginning in the 2015 school year, and they failed to adjust the capital budget accordingly,” he said.
Nobody from the Liberal Opposition was available to respond despite several requests for comment.
Fleming said that there is enthusiasm in the ministry and school districts to begin tackling the issue. “So we’re going to set some ambitious sights on trying to cut the time down on planning, approving and building a school, and repairing the backlog in maintenance in other school assets.”
He provided no specifics on costs associated with the backlog. “There’s different numbers flying around,” he said.
In some cases, he said, it might make more sense to build a new school than repair an old one.
Fleming’s ministry said in a statement that the provincial estimate for deferred school maintenance is about $5 billion, but stressed that the government does not rely on such estimates to determine needs.
The ministry said that deferred maintenance estimates do not take into account the true condition of building elements, or the ability to keep them functioning by replacing parts.
Fleming acknowledged that repairs and construction will require significant resources, but said he believes the NDP government can find the money. “On the capital side, you can amortize that. I think the business case is there, too, where you have a lot of school assets at the end of their useful life, to do a number of things.”
Fleming has been meeting with education leaders across the province, including the heads of school boards.
Sooke school board chairman Ravi Parmar said the main thing that he and Fleming talked about was growth.
He said he reiterated the point that Sooke is among the fastest-growing districts in B.C.
“The uniqueness about us is the velocity of the growth that’s happening in our district, growing over the past three years by 500-plus kids.”
He said he told Fleming that the Sooke School District is looking for funds to buy land immediately in Langford and Colwood, where there is considerable development happening. “We need to be able to buy land before it’s all gone.”
The district’s capital plan includes an addition to Royal Bay Secondary, where there are already portables despite the school opening as a new building in 2015.
“We’re asking for funding to get that project done, and we’re asking for a new middle school and five elementary schools.”
All of that will costs hundreds of millions of dollars, Parmar said.
He said he hopes the district has built trust with the ministry in its ability to handle large, complex projects such as the $38.6-million Royal Bay Secondary and a new $50.8-million Belmont Secondary, which also opened in 2015.
“Give us the money, we’ll get the job done.”