In an email not meant for public consumption, a Surrey councillor is taking direct aim at the province for a lack of leadership when it comes to funding schools.
Last week, Coun. Barbara Steele sent an email to a Surrey resident, criticizing the lack of leadership in B.C.
The email appears to be a misstep, with Steele replying to the resident instead of forwarding it to someone else, as she intended.
The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, provided The Leader with a copy of the email exchange of May 4.
In it, the woman complained to Steele about a planned 181-townhome project for 5750 Panorama Dr. and the impact it will have on further stressing already overcrowded schools in the area.
“I attended a (Surrey city) council meeting on May 2 and admit experiencing shocking disappointment at the leadership, or lack thereof, displayed there,” the resident wrote in an email to Steele.
The Surrey councillor wrote an email in response the same day, but it was apparently meant for someone else.
“Don’t agree with her comments but once again NO LEADERSHIP,” Steele said from her iPhone at 3:55 p.m.
The resident thought Steele was talking about Mayor Linda Hepner and pressed for clarification.
Steele responded at 5:08 p.m., saying her comment was directed squarely at the province.
“The leadership or lack thereof was being directed at the Province,” Steele wrote. “I do want to reassure you though that as a Councillor, the concerns you have for the students are my concerns too. Children in SURREY have been in portables for too long.”
Steele goes on to say that her son, who is now 40 years old, went to school in portables.
The connection between breakneck development and the lack of school space – a longstanding issue in Surrey – has reached a flashpoint in the city.
Steele told The Leader Wednesday her email was sent to the resident in error, but she said she stands behind her criticism of the province.
“The leadership is lacking from the province as to what we’re supposed to do about the school system,” Steele said. “I think the province needs to get their head around it, and probably quickly, because they have an election coming up.”
She said her criticism was a general comment, not targeting any one individual within the government.
Steele is critical of the model where school funding isn’t calculated until pupils show up in class each year.
“By the time a new school is built, most of those kids are (aged) out of the school already,” Steele said. “Right now, we’re taking the heat for it, the school board is in the middle of it, and in Surrey, it’s a major issue.”
She hopes to meet soon with the Surrey Board of Education and would like to have B.C. Minister of Education Mike Bernier there as well.
“It’s a serious problem and we need to sit down and work on it,” Steele said. “But it needs to be more than the city and the school board at the table. The provision of schools belongs squarely at the feet of the province.”
B.C. Minister of Education Mike Bernier was not immediately available for an interview with The Leader.
However, the education ministry responded by email, saying that several projects in Surrey are under way.
“We are close to having new schools approved and we’re working closely with the district on a number of projects,” the ministry wrote. “We’re also looking at innovative ways Surrey can deal with the intense pressures from growth. Some ideas being discussed include larger high schools or even larger facilities housing two separate elementary schools.”
The email from the ministry also pointed out that a high school is under construction in north Clayton, as well as additions to three elementary schools.
“These projects will create 1,870 spaces for Surrey.”
Those spaces will be at capacity when they open.
This isn’t the first time concern over a lack of school space has escalated in Surrey. In 1991, it became an election issue, resulting in then-Surrey school trustee Penny Priddy taking the riding of Surrey-Newton for the NDP from Social Credit Premier Rita Johnston.
Priddy told The Leader Wednesday one of the biggest issues at the time was a lack of schools – in Newton and South Surrey particularly.
“(The issues were) friends and insiders and time for a change… but in Surrey, the fact that there were not enough schools to support a growing population was an important piece of that,” Priddy said.
The NDP went on to win 51 of the 75 available seats in the legislature in 1991 and held on to power for a decade.
Observers say the issue is heating up yet again and will play prominently in next spring’s provincial election.
The provincial NDP has already started a petition calling on the B.C. Liberals to provide adequate funding for schools at fightforkidsbc.ca
Last month, after the the Surrey Board of Education passed a motion asking the City of Surrey to temporarily suspend all new development approvals in fast-growing areas of the city until schools could catch up, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said freezing development is not the answer.
Steele said she also supports continued development because the city has a responsibility to help provide housing.
But she believes any large development in Surrey will now be met with concerned parents who don’t want it because of the impact on area schools.
The Panorama Drive development that was the subject of the email correspondence with Steele has not yet been before Surrey council, but will likely be the part of a public hearing in the coming weeks.