Cleaning Up The BC Liberal’s education Mess

By Roy L Hales

The BC Liberal government’s 14-year-long war with the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) left the province’s education system in shambles. At least 267 schools closed down. Many were old and in need of repair; others had declining enrolment numbers. The equivalent of 3,500 full time teaching and support jobs were lost. One of the government’s fiercest critics was the current Minister of Education, NDP MLA Rob Fleming. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the BCTF’s favour in November 2016 and the task of cleaning up the BC Liberal’s education mess was left to the new NDP government.

Portables In Surrey

Stephanie Cadieux – public domain

Meanwhile the exiled Liberals appear to be attempting to rewrite history. I witnessed one of their political skirmishes during the Legislature’s Question Period on March 7, 2019.

South Surrey MLA Stephanie Cadieux opened the opposition’s attack by asking:

“Two years ago the Premier came for a campaign photo-op in Surrey and promised to eliminate portables. The Premier promised a total removal of portables over the next four years. ‘We need to start reducing them by half in the first two years.’ He has not reduced them by half. He has done the opposite and increased them. To the Minister of Education, can he explain why the Premier and he have broken their promises to families in Surrey?”

Robert Fleming, the Minister of Education, replied:

“I think the other side should take some credit for the mess that they created in Surrey. In fact, they should take all of the credit. They should acknowledge their record in Surrey — that they only built one new school in five years.

… When we became government, to our shock and surprise, there was nothing in the cupboard in terms of capital projects being planned and built in Surrey — nothing. And where there have been new portables brought into Surrey in the last 18 months, they should take credit for that too. The reason there’ve been new portables added to the portfolio in Surrey…. Number one, they lost at the Supreme Court. Class sizes became smaller, and portables were added. That’s their record for 12 years of fighting teachers.”

As of March 11, Ms Cadieux has not responded to Cortes Currents queries.

Robert Fleming, BC’s Minister of Education – courtesy his office.

Fleming emailed Cortes Currents that the first school built in Surrey since 2014 was Salish Secondary School in Surrey’s Clayton Heights.

He added, ” … There were no shovels in the ground on new school projects until our government began to move projects forward. Since September 2017, we have approved $211 million for new and expanded schools, seismic upgrades, and land purchases for future schools to meet the growing demand for space in Surrey, with much more to come.”

Five Surrey school projects delayed due to higher construction bid costs, but the expansion to Woodward Hill Elementary school went forward.

“Our government approved six expansion projects in our first year – that’s three times as fast as the old government, which only approved two per year since 2008,” says Fleming.

“There are about 7,000 seats that either opened in September 2018, or will be open by September 2021 in Surrey. [The equivalent of 300 portables] Right now, there are 11 new school and expansion projects under construction in Surrey.”

These new classrooms could fill much of the district’s need, but not all. There are already 325 portables in use, and more will be required before 2021.

Robert Fleming, BC’s Minister of Education, visits an elementary school – courtesy his office

Surrey Board of Education vice-chair Terry Allen told the Surrey NOW that the government needs to rely on projections of the student population rather than actual numbers.

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.”

In School District 72

Surrey is not the only school district the NDP are investing in. They are pouring funds into schools throughout the province. For example, School District 72, which stretches from Campbell River to Cortes Island, was just awarded $1, 815, 506 in funding for :

  • Mechanical upgrades at Carihi High
  • Boiler replacement at Ecole Phoenix Middle School

School Closures

The BC Liberals next area of attack was potential school closures in Vancouver.

Given their recent history, this sounds a bit absurd.

According to Fleming’s email, “About 240 schools closed under the previous government’s watch, while no schools have closed since September 2017. Our government is making investments that keep schools open. In fact, five schools have already re-opened that were closed under the old government’s watch.”

The BC Teacher’s Federation compiled a list of 267 terminated schools. Two of the last to be decommissioned are in our area: Oyster River and Discovery Passage elementary schools in Campbell River. A total of six schools were terminated in Campbell River between 2002 and 2017. Another three were closed in Powell River; seven in Comox; and twelve in the Cowichan Valley. The worst afflicted district in the province was Prince George – which lost 22 schools.

Possible Vancouver School Closures

The Vancouver School Board escaped from this carnage relatively unscathed, but a recent report states, “The District has experienced declining enrolment for a number of years, with 4,700 fewer students in 2017 than were in schools in 2007.” Schools are currently operating at only about 85% of capacity and that is expected to get worse.

In addition, 28 under-utilized Vancouver schools are at risk of damage should there be an earthquake. The NDP responded by approving $240 million in seismic upgrades.

BC MLA Michael Lee by Rod Raglin via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Ignoring his party’s dismal record, BC Liberal MLA Michael Lee went on the offensive during Question Period:

“The now Minister of Education has said: “School closures just rip the guts out of neighbourhoods in Vancouver.” As a parent with children who have benefited from attending local neighbourhood public schools in Vancouver, I understand the anxiety of families, with 28 schools currently on the chopping block. This includes Walter Moberly Elementary School, located just over the Fraser Street boundary that I share with the member for Vancouver-Fraserview. My question is to the Minister of State for Trade. Moberly is in his riding. What has he done to stop this school closure?

Fleming shot back:

“I thank the member for the question, because I think it’s his obligation, and other members, to not present misinformation about school closures in Vancouver. For the first time in 16 years, there is no pressure to close schools in Vancouver.”

The discussion we’re having with the Vancouver school board today. It’s entirely different. It’s how can we invest faster to build as many safe seats in Vancouver, which has been neglected for far too long under the previous government.”

However on September 30, 2019, the Vancouver School District will be providing “the name(s) of secondary schools, elementary schools and annexes for consideration for closure for the 2020 school year …”

“That’s not pressure, That’s just accounting for the condition of the facilities and what the utilization rates are,” Fleming recently told Vancouver PROVINCE columnist Mike Smyth.

Pressed for clarification, the Minister replied, “I will let the Vancouver school board speak to their process. I applaud Vancouver for committing to engaging with parents.”

BCTF Comments On The Budget

He subsequently emailed Cortes Currents, “Budget 2019 provides a $6.6 billion operating budget for K-12 education, the largest in B.C. history, and $1 billion more than [the Liberal budget] in 2015/16.On top of that we have a record $2.7 billion capital budget for new and expanded schools, seismic upgrades, and land purchases for future schools.” 

The reigning government’s benches in the provincial legislature – Roy L Hales photo

“It’s good to see this government pushing ahead with record capital investments after years of school closures and stagnant funding by the previous government,” said Clint Johnston, Second Vice-President of the BC Teachers’ Federation, in a press release. 

“As enrolment continues to grow and new funds are required to make improvements to class-size, class-composition, and specialist teacher staffing ratios, BC will need to build on the funding increases announced in Budget 2019.”

“The 3,700 new teaching positions funded by this government to date are a result of the BCTF’s Supreme Court win. The restoration of our collective agreement language is what’s driving the reduction of class sizes and the increase in supports for children with special needs. After 16 years of cuts under the previous government, those caps and ratios now need to be improved.” 

“BC teachers are some of the lowest paid in all of Canada and live in some of the most expensive communities. It’s one of the reasons why teacher recruitment and retention is such a challenge. The effort to reduce costs and make life affordable for individuals and families will help many of our members. While BC needs to see more specific action to address the teacher shortage, I applaud this government for their commitment to tackle the province’s affordability crisis.”

Top photo credit: John Horgan and the BC NDP will get Surrey students out of portables and into real classrooms (April 19, 2017. Surrey, BC.) – BC NDP via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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