Lack of funding for new B.C. schools, seismic upgrades has critics questioning government priorities

·4 min read
B.C. Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside at news conference in Victoria in December 2020. The ministry recently notified school districts that at least seven school construction projects will not move forward as expected. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)
B.C. Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside at news conference in Victoria in December 2020. The ministry recently notified school districts that at least seven school construction projects will not move forward as expected. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)

The British Columbia government is ending the academic year on the defensive after several school districts were told they would not be receiving any new money for much-needed infrastructure projects.

School districts in Vancouver, Mission, Greater Victoria, the Kootenays and Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows all recently learned their requests for capital funding had been denied by the Ministry of Education. The money had been requested to build new schools and seismically upgrade buildings at risk of collapsing in an earthquake.

At the same time, critics are highlighting the B.C. NDP's recent announcement of an almost $800 million seismically safe rebuild of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. While the government insists the museum investment has not pulled money from school project funding, the optics are not sitting well with parents, school boards and opposition parties.

"To spend a billion dollars for a brand new Royal B.C. Museum that nobody wanted, while halting construction on already announced schools that parents and teachers were promised, is unacceptable," said B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon in a statement.

Falcon says Premier John Horgan is using costs associated with last year's fires and floods as an excuse to freeze school spending despite forging ahead with a "boondoggle museum project."

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said families are being let down by the government's spending priorities.

But the provincial government rejects these claims.

Museum, school funding unrelated: NDP

Both Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Tourism Minister Melanie Mark have argued that investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the museum does not mean the government has pulled money from school funding.

"The two aren't really related," said Whiteside, speaking on CBC's On The Island.  "The museum project represents ... less than one per cent of the capital budget for this year."

She said the NDP has spent $2.7 billion in the last four years opening new schools and doing seismic upgrades. She says the province is committed to spending just over $3 billion in the next three years to carry on that important work.

But this is little comfort to those recently denied funding.

Tracy Loffler, chair of the board of trustees for the Mission School District, says the district has been waiting 15 years for a new high school and now they will have to wait indefinitely.

During the 2020 provincial election, the NDP promised to replace École Mission Senior Secondary but the project has been deferred.

'Uncertainty fuelling anger'

Loffler says the current school, built in the 1950s, is at the end of its lifespan and at capacity with about 1,300 students. The board will now have to submit another business case to the province for a new build.

"Uncertainty is fuelling that anger that's in the community right now," said Loffler, speaking to CBC's On The Coast.

David Schaub, president of the parent advisory committee at False Creek Elementary in Vancouver, says that school is also at capacity.

He told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko the situation is so bad, there is a waiting list for kindergarten and families have been turned away for a decade now.

The building he said, is also not built to withstand an earthquake.

The ministry's seismic school needs list points to another 250 schools that need upgrades for earthquake safety.

Schaub said False Creek Elementary has been waiting four years for a seismic upgrade plan from the province and will now have to wait longer.

"We don't even know what's been frozen, all we know is it's not good," said Schaub.

Every year, each of 60 B.C. school districts puts forward a five-year capital plan and the Ministry of Education prioritizes those plans.

Carolyn Broady, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, says sometimes those priorities change and, this year, that included prioritizing construction at a school in Quesnel, B.C., that is in a high-risk landslide zone.

But, Broady said in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition, there are numerous schools at capacity and at risk.

"We do need more money to move these projects forward, especially on seismic upgrades," she said.

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