Saanich school district seismic upgrades delayed

Saanich school trustees have voted to delay a pair of seismic projects in response to a new provincial policy calling for school districts to use reserve funds for the cost of the earthquake-related upgrades.

They are also calling on other boards of education and the B.C. School Trustees Association to demand a task force that would shape provincial policy on seismic funding to cover the next eight to 10 years.

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“Certainty in seismic-upgrade funding is imperative for boards of education in their ongoing capital planning,” Saanich school board chairman Wayne Hunter said in an email to his fellow school board leaders around B.C.

He called the government’s direction an “unexpected change” and said his board felt it had to respond.

“The Saanich board of education directed staff to redesign the two projects to minimal requirements, develop a five-year capital plan for the district [and] engage in consultation with the Ministry of Education, with the B.C. School Trustees Association and with our education partners.”

Hunter said in an interview Monday that all of B.C.’s school boards have been responding to the government policy. “There are only a few of us affected, but they’re all voicing really big concerns.”

The Education Ministry has responded that its policy decision stems from a 2010 auditor general report concluding some public-sector agencies — including school districts — were holding too much cash. An accompanying cash-management policy was introduced in this year’s provincial budget.

The ministry said any cost-sharing requirements for districts on major projects such as seismic work will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Hunter led an outcry against the policy shift in March, saying seismic work has routinely been funded by the Ministry of Education. Under that system, districts have used reserve funds for school improvements that can be done concurrently with seismic projects.

The delays in the Saanich district would affect seismic upgrades at Cordova Bay Elementary School and Parkland Secondary School, set to start soon. Planned supplemental work at Cordova Bay, to be paid for by the district, totals about $700,000 worth of such measures as heating, ventilation improvements and design upgrades. Up to $2 million in improvements has been planned for Parkland.

Hunter said that adding needed improvements at the time of seismic projects allows them to be done more cheaply than if they are done separately.

Instead, the province is telling Saanich to use the reserves that would have helped with the improvements to pay for half of the cost of the $4.8-million Cordova Bay seismic work.

The Greater Victoria school board took a similar stance on the policy change last week, sending a letter to Education Minister Peter Fassbender that says the redirection of reserve funds could compromise student safety. That is because any added strain on already-tight finances could cause some work to be delayed, board chairwoman Peg Orcherton said in the letter.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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