The chair of the Surrey Board of Education has once again forwarded the district's concerns to Victoria about a lack of new school space and the fact Surrey spends $4.5 million annually on portables.

Lack of Surrey school space remains ‘critical,’ trustees tell Victoria

District airs capital funding and other concerns to provincial finance committee.

While shrinking school districts get compensation for their declining enrolment, Surrey has had to cut staff to pay for portables for its ever-growing student population. And that, says the school board chair, simply isn’t fair.

Shawn Wilson pointed to what trustees feel is inequitable treatment as part of a presentation made earlier this month to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.

He said the province has provisions to cover unique costs for districts where student numbers are dwindling, but there’s nothing offered to districts like Surrey that incur extraordinary costs due to increasing enrolment.

“The playing field is uneven when we must reduce teaching staff to pay for portables while other district budgets are effectively compensated for vacant space,” Wilson said.

A lack of capital (building) money has left Surrey bustling with more than 70,000 students and not enough school space to put them in. The 300 portables housing the student overflow cost $15,000 apiece annually, equating to $4.5 million from Surrey’s operating budget. And that’s enough to pay about 50 teachers.

“While we acknowledge receiving a lion’s share of funding over the past decade, our situation remains critical,” said Wilson. “Surrey has more students in portables than half of B.C. school districts have in total enrolment.”

Surrey submitted its capital wish list to government last week, with a new high school in the Grandview Heights area once again topping the list. The district already owns land near the nearly completed swimming pool and has been waiting for government funding to proceed with construction. Even if announced today, the $47-million school would take three years to build, leaving Earl Marriott Secondary (EMS) and other overcrowded schools continuing to scramble.

EMS and three other Surrey high schools already run double shifts (with different grades attending at alternate times). Wilson said while that was once a temporary measure used in extraordinary circumstances, it’s become the norm in B.C.’s largest school district.

A “well-supported, well-articulated and transparent” capital plan is needed so adequate facilities can be provided for students, said the school board chair, who added the province also needs to stop encouraging school districts to bring in international students without allowing them to be counted in school capacity calculations.

During his presentation, Wilson also touched on shared services, a concept wherein districts can share costs for things all districts use. As a large district in a major urban region, Surrey doesn’t feel it’s always financially beneficial to be part of it and would like the board to have a choice whether to participate, rather than it be mandated.

Surrey’s final concern brought to the standing committee was the need for a “robust, fully-funded” compensation plan for exempt (non-union) staff, who have not had a wage increase for six years. Wilson said it’s making it difficult to recruit leadership and managers, who “lag behind” those they supervise.

“We have and will continue to experience ‘brain drain’ as talented professionals leave the K-12 sector.”

The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services holds provincewide consultations each fall in preparation for the next provincial budget.