Province urged to build more schools in Surrey, B.C., as need for portables keeps growing

·3 min read
A portable at Sunnyside Elementary School in Surrey, where the temporary buildings have been used for decades. (CBC - image credit)
A portable at Sunnyside Elementary School in Surrey, where the temporary buildings have been used for decades. (CBC - image credit)

The Surrey Board of Education says it's running out of space to place new portables as B.C.'s largest school district races to keep up with rising enrolment.

Board trustee and finance chair Terry Allen says the use of portables — modular buildings placed on school property to relieve crowded classrooms — can be costly for schools and disruptive to learning.

He says in the last year, the Surrey school district, which is currently using 361 portables, saw enrolment grow by more than 2,200 students. If that number continues to grow at the same rate, it could mean an increase to 400 portables in two years.

"We're going backwards, we're not going forward," Allen said.

In a letter sent to Education Minister Rachna Singh this week, the board said it is looking to buy 30 new portables for the next school year and is preparing to move 39 of its current portables to manage projected enrolment growth.

Allen says funding for portables comes from schools' operating budgets, which is also used to pay for student services and resources including laptops, after-school programs and hot lunch programs.

He says using the budget for portables "could and probably will result in layoffs and cuts to services."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Allen says portables in schools reduce children's play areas and sports fields, adding the district may have to start stacking portables on top of each other due to the lack of space — which would come with an additional cost for schools.

He says the province needs to build more schools but acknowledged that would take years.

"We're asking the minister and treasury board to revisit the Surrey school district's capital plan and capital allotment for the year," Allen said.

"Build us a school. Give us the money to build schools to start to reduce the portable usage in Surrey."

Disruptive and isolating

Fallon Vickers is a member of the Parents Advisory Council at Edgewood Elementary School, which has seven portables. Her two children are students there.

Vickers says having to leave the portable to access services in the school's main building — such as the bathroom or hot lunch program — is disruptive and takes away from classroom time, and can be even more difficult during inclement weather.

Being in a separate building can also be isolating, she adds.

"The children would feel much more ... included if they were inside the school with the rest of their peers," she said.

Elenore Sturko, South Surrey MLA and education critic with B.C. United, says her children currently have classes in portables.

"Having to leave the classroom and go outdoors by themselves to access other services — that's not, for me as a parent, something I'm really comfortable with," said Sturko.

'Playing catchup'

B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon says the government has failed to deliver on its promise from 2017 to eliminate portables at Surrey schools.

Falcon told the Legislature on Wednesday that the numbers of school portables have doubled in six years under the NDP.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

But the education minister said Tuesday the NDP has been "playing catchup" after the previous government under the B.C. Liberals — since renamed B.C. United — failed to invest in Surrey schools.

"We are doing things differently. We know that kids need modern, safe school classrooms and that's why we're investing in Surrey schools," Singh said.

The Ministry of Education says it has spent half a billion dollars on Surrey schools since 2017.

Premier David Eby says the government is committed to providing safe learning environments and has opened 10,000 new spaces for students through 16 new schools or additions that are complete or underway across the city.