Surrey is currently home to more than 360 portables, and the district says that number could climb over 400 next year. District officials say a lack of space to put the temporary classrooms means they may be forced to stack them on top of each other at some schools.
“Right now I feel like we’re living in a very reactive situation, where we’re adding portables, we’re adding additions to other schools after the fact, after we’ve realized the density is just too great for the capacity of the school,” said Fallon Vickers, an executive with the Surrey District Parent Advisory Committee and a parent of children at Surrey’s Edgewood Elementary.
Edgewood, which is only two years old, is already home to seven portables with another seven expected this summer.
Vickers said everyone from residents to city officials to the Ministry of Education is aware that the region continues to grow at a breakneck speed — but that planning for new schools always seems to be one step behind.
“The fact that the ministry has access to that information on hand and it’s not being addressed is a little bit mind-blowing,” she said.
“The fact this wasn’t considered from the beginning is extremely frustrating for everyone.”
Surrey Teachers’ Association president Jatinder Bir said she’s particularly concerned about the unintended consequence of double-decker portables.
“I’ve actually never seen two stacked portables. I wonder about the safety, earthquakes, access. We talk about universal design for learning — how are they accessible to all folks?” she said.
She said the district already faces accessibility issues with the existing portables, with teachers and students needing to travel back to the main school to get water or use bathrooms. During extreme snow events, those problems compound, she said.
Currently, the money to buy and install portables comes out of the Surrey School District’s operating budget, which Bir said also comes at a cost for students and teachers.
“The district is actually very, very tight on money,” she said.
“For every portable it’s my understanding that’s two classroom teachers out.”
Surrey School District board chair Laurie Larsen told Global News the district has already spent $4.8 million on buying and redeploying portables this year alone, and has spent more than $17.5 million over the last five years.
She said as many as 10,000 of the district’s 78,000 students will be in portables next September, a problem that will only grow with the district enrolling up to 2,200 new students per year.
The current situation does not take into account an expected surge in density with new developments slated along the planned Surrey-Langley SkyTrain extension.
“The problem is once we even get approval for a site or a school, it takes almost five years to get that school up and running. So because we have no new growth now scheduled, other than the two schools that are coming on board in the next year or so, there is nothing in the pipe, so to speak,” she said.
“We have asked continuously for the ministry, all last three ministers and the current one to actually fund even the removal and purchasing of portables, because that’s money that should stay in the classroom.”
The district has penned a letter to B.C. Education Minister Rachna Singh warning that the funding crunch could result in the elimination of popular school programs, including French immersion, outdoor education and intensive fine arts.
The issue took centre stage during question period the legislature Wednesday, where the BC United opposition hammered the governing NDP over its 2017 election promise to completely eliminate portables in Surrey.
“Here is where we are at now in Surrey under this premier, this minister, this NDP government: Double decker portables. Double decker portables,” Surrey-White Rock MLA Trevor Halford said.
“That is what we’re in. That is the vision for the NDP in Surrey. So you know what, here’s what this premier is doing, he’s emptying prisons and he’s double bunking students.”
Education Minister Rachna Singh responded by maintaining the government was responding to Surrey’s surging growth.
“We are creating 10,000 new seats in Surrey, and that is equivalent to 400 new classrooms,” she said.
On Tuesday, Singh told Global News her government had opened six new schools and added 11 expansions since 2017. The province maintains that 12 new projects or expansions are in the pipeline for the city.
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