For the first time in nearly 20 years, public school enrolment is up in B.C. In a statement, the Ministry of Education said the province saw an increase of 4,700 students from September 2014 to September 2015. However, the increases weren’t evenly spread. Surrey experienced the biggest gains, with 872 students. Other increases in the Lower Mainland included 372 in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, 370 in Coquitlam, and 340 in Langley.
It’s proving to be a crunch, especially in Surrey, which is seen as family-friendly and affordable. Some parents, like Zainab Bajwa, are hoping there will be space for her son, Eesa, who will be attending kindergarten in two years.
“I hear that schools are really packed, and that kids have to go to schools that are further away from their home,” Bajwa said.
Doug Strachan, communications manager for the Surrey School District, says the need is most acute in three Surrey areas: Clayton, South Surrey, and Newton-South.
“That’s where we’re really challenged and starving for spaces. We’re over capacity for elementary schools and secondary schools in those three areas…and we’ve been lobbying for space for the better part of the decade.”
Surrey is currently constructing a secondary school as well as classroom additions on a few elementary schools. Strachan added the district has three or four new schools on the top of its capital wish list.
By contrast, Vancouver area schools experienced a drop in enrolment by 629 students. A new report to the Vancouver School Board suggested 12 elementary schools and one high school would have to close to ensure Vancouver was operating at 95 per cent capacity.
But some Vancouver School Board trustees, like Patti Bacchus, disagree.
“Our schools are at about 85 per cent capacity, just under that, and that allows us some flexibility. It allows some schools to use space for art rooms, music rooms, we have adult education programs. Government considers that surplus empty space.”
The issue of half-empty schools has come to a head over the question of seismic upgrades. Education minister Mike Bernier said, “It’s not fair to the province of British Columbia if we’re seismically upgrading schools that don’t have any students in it.” But education critic Rob Fleming says it’s not fair to students in the schools who were promised upgrades.
“They looked every parent square in the face and said your kids will be safe, we’re going to seismically upgrade every school, and they haven’t done the work and to cover up for that broken promise, they’re trying to drive school closures.”
Some parents are not giving up. Andrea Sinclair, a representative for the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education, took a petition and set of postcards with 1,500 signatures to Bernier this morning, demanding more funding for students. She said, “it took us 10 or 12 days, our campaign is still ongoing, and we’re encouraging more and more people to sign.”
Another representative, Jennifer Stewart, added “You don’t have to have children to know the value of a public education. It makes educated citizens who are better able to pay higher taxes and keep that public education improving and keeping with the times.”
– With files from Tanya Beja and John Hua