(Black Press file photo)

Surrey school district’s portable count rises to 333: Allen

Trustee says Surrey needs to be allowed to order schools based on projections or ‘we’re never going to stop this madness’

Updated: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of portables, after Terry Allen was provided with unclear information. The total number of portables has risen by 14 as originally reported but the total number of portables in the district is 333, not 347.

Even with a new high school in Clayton Heights opening this September, and a 200-seat addition to Woodward Hill Elementary completed, the number of portable classrooms in Surrey has risen once more.

Surrey Board of Education vice-chair Terry Allen tells the Now-Leader the district now has 333 portables, which includes 14 new ones that have arrived for the beginning of the school year.

“We’ve moved 30 to accommodate the kids,” he noted,” and the 14 we’ve bought is probably not going to be enough, we’re probably going to have to get more.”

“I started to think that as much as the new provincial government has OK’d new schools and everything, unless they change the system we’re never going to get ahead of this,” Allen added. “We can’t put in for schools until we actually do the head counts. The kids are already there. It’s absolutely ridiculous. We’ll always be moving portables, purchasing portables, we’re chasing our own tail.”

Allen called for the provincial government to allow Surrey to build schools on projections. Without that change, he said, “we’re never going to stop this madness.”

“It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever encountered,” he elaborated. “When you can only apply for new schools when the children are already there, how can you ever get ahead? The reality is that Surrey is one of the most affordable places to live in the Lower Mainland, and one of the most rapid growing places. So I can understand on one hand you don’t want to build schools you’ll never open in the rural areas. But in Surrey it just continues to grow and grow and grow. People were really concerned we were going to have to have portables at the new Salish (Secondary School, which opens in September), but we’re not. That’s one good thing. But that doesn’t mean we won’t put portables there the year after it opens. Unless the system changes, we’re never going to get ahead of it.”

To be fair, Allen said he wanted to acknowledge Premier John Horgan’s promise to rid Surrey of all its portables. But, Allen said, “it will never happen. We don’t build schools until the kids are in place. There’s no way we get a break any other way. High schools have to be 110 per cent capacity before we can apply for a new school.”

Allen said with the situation worsening year after year, he worries the day will come when children will be turned away from their neighbourhood school due to overcrowding. “It becomes more of a reality year after year,” he said. “That is frightening. So just because we get $300 million of construction money, it doesn’t stop this madness.”

In April, Allen revealed to the Now-Leader that the district’s portable bill is set to double this year.

While the Surrey school district typically spends about $4 million a year to maintain existing portable classrooms, the total bill is expected to jump to $8.5 million this year.

See more: Surrey school district looking at $8.5M bill for portables this year

The district says the $8.5-million figure includes roughly $2.1 million to move 33 portables (at an estimated $65,000 each), $1.2 million for new portables, and the remaining approximately $5 million is to be spent on maintenance.

Making matters worse is that there’s not enough new provincial funding to cover the portable increases, according to Allen, among a slew of other new costs including inflation on supplies and services; inflation on employee benefit costs; increased salary and benefits for non-unionized staff; increased demand for education assistant services for special needs students; and increased demand for school meal programs and other services for the most vulnerable students.

“We’re still on the hook for all the inflation, hydro increases… The increase in money isn’t covering all the costs,” Allen said.

Allen said at the time that the district will be able to survive this year’s spike, due to a “funding balance” from previous years. The district’s “operating fund balance” was to be drawn down to $15.1 million on June 30 to cover a $21-million shortfall in the 2017-18 budget, noted a trustee report.

“They call it a surplus, but we call it a funding balance. Without that, we would be having to make cuts – and deep cuts,” stressed Allen at the time.

Spokesman Doug Strachan said in April that the district received in the neighbourhood of $700 million in operating funding from the province last year. Strachan said Allen is correct and all the things he listed are “not being funded.”

The district received $10.77 million from the province in 2017 to purchase 38 of the 50 new portables it needed, as well as costs associated with relocating and refurbishing three more, and renovating 21 classrooms. But this year, “we have to pay for (the portables) on our own as we have in the past,” said Strachan in April.

In an interview with Black Press Media on Aug. 24, Education Minister Rob Fleming responded to the portable concerns in Surrey.

“Surrey has never had 2,500 fully funded spaces in a 10-month period, ever,” said Fleming of his government’s investments. “Our government is not interested in photo ops, we’re interested in real funding decisions that have been made by Treasury Board and our new government to finally get a handle on the backlog that we inherited from the previous government.”

Fleming noted portable use went up by 50 per cent under the previous Liberal government, “and we’re looking to turn the corner and by 2021, which was our four-year commitment, and start eliminating portables aggressively in Surrey.”

“The previous government didn’t fund nearly enough site acquisitions, and it’s very expensive to do that retroactively in built-out developments, but that’s what we’re having to do,” said Fleming. Following that, we’ll be looking at funding future enrolment projections, because growth has been a known challenge in Surrey. It’s been steady, and almost each and every year exactly what it was predicted to be.”

Fleming said the NDP government has changed the way it allocates capital “so for schools that are overcrowded with far too many portables, we now have a component of our capital budget that’s solely designed to fund additions and the elimination of portables.”

Meantime, Salish Secondary, near 73rd Avenue and 184th Street in Clayton, is opening this September, welcoming an estimated 825 students and 60 staff members. The school district noted in a release that the opening of Salish has meant the removal of nine portables from Clayton Heights Secondary (two remain), and eight from Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary (10 remain). With a capacity of 1,500, Salish will accept Grade 8 to 11 students this year, to allow for Grade 12 students to graduate with peers at existing schools.

A 200-seat addition at Newton’s Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary is also completed, and opening the first day of school, which will bring that school’s capacity to 640.

Bear Creek Elementary has also undergone seismic upgrading, the bulk of which will be done by September, with just the gymnasium to be completed by October.

In all, the district estimates it will see 850 new students to Surrey and White Rock schools this fall, bringing total enrolment to more than 73,300 – the largest in the province.

New teachers and support staff are also being hired.

“After a province-wide hiring spree last year (as a result of a 2016 Supreme Court decision that changed class size and composition rules), Surrey Schools has returned to a more routine hiring pace to cover annual enrolment growth,” noted an Aug. 23 district release. “We’re well on our way to hiring the 66 additional teachers, 24 education assistants and 28 support staff anticipated to be required.”

Board of Education chair Laurie Larsen said “unlike most school districts in B.C., Surrey Schools has successfully managed significant enrolment growth and related pressures year after year. The resulting experience and expertise better prepares us to face sudden change, as we encountered last year,” Larsen added. Larsen and Allen are seeking re-election in the Oct. 20 election.

-With files from Tom Fletcher

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