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Surrey school trustees blindsided as council rejects district capital plan

School district’s sites proposal turned down by council over low growth projections
Surrey council chambers at City Hall. (File photo)

After Surrey city council rejected the school district’s 2024-25 capital plan over its low growth projections for the coming 10-year period, a facilitator will be called in to resolve the issue.

This comes despite the fact that the district insists the numbers considered by council tell only half the story.

“The city denied our proposal, which is the first time that’s ever happened as far as I know, to any district,” board chair Laurie Larsen told Peace Arch News on Monday (Dec. 18).

The report, discussed at council on Monday, Dec. 4, outlines the projected growth the district is expected to see within the next decade, based on housing projections from the city, listed as 9,777 new students.

With this anticipated growth, the district indicates a need for 12 new school sites in the capital plan. Had it been approved by the city, the report would have been forwarded to the provincial ministry for funding decisions.

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However, Surrey school district’s communications representative Ritinder Matthew explained that the report’s numbers indicate only a portion of the actual growth projected.

“It’s important to clarify that the numbers that were considered by council only included enrolment growth that is directly related to new developments approved by the city, not total growth,” Matthew noted.

Larsen said that trustees were completely blindsided by council’s rejection.

“We weren’t too happy that instead of just telling us, it came out of the blue. It was a surprise because it could’ve been fixed with a phone call or liaison meeting as opposed to now having a facilitator that will put everything for the board in limbo for the coming year.”

After the council meeting, Larsen said the board reached out to the city for an explanation about why the capital plan was rejected. On Dec. 14, the board chair said they received a response that stated that the board was still not asking for enough funding from the ministry.

The report before council was completed in September, before new housing legislation was announced. Mayor Brenda Locke acknowledged Monday (Dec. 18) that this did present the board with a challenge, which is why council has asked the district to look at the numbers again “in context of the new legislation.”

“We don’t know (if the numbers will change) and that’s what our city manager has said in a letter,” Locke told PAN.

“I know the school board is concerned because this is unprecedented, but this legislation is incredibly unprecedented and we just want to make sure the plans for schools in Surrey are going to meet what these new bills are going to do to the city in terms of density.”

The plan is drafted in collaboration with city staff, so why there was such strong disagreement is confusing to Larsen, she said.

“I spoke with the minister of education and child care yesterday and she wasn’t too sure what would happen now, because it hasn’t been done before. There’s no background from other districts to rely on,” the chair added.

While Locke said the meeting between the board and council will not be adversarial, Larsen said the situation has “caused quite an uneasiness between the board of education, the district and the city of Surrey.”

“I think there’s an ongoing dispute between the city and the province… I don’t know if we’re stuck in the middle of it.”

Locke said that that council’s “difference of opinion” with the provincial government over policing in Surrey is irrelevant.

“That’s got nothing to do with this at all. We are trying to build schools that kids are able to go to, and go to whole schools, not schools with just about 400 portables in them. So that’s our goal and I hope that’s Laurie Larsen’s goal.”

Whether this dispute will delay funding decisions from the province is a worry for the school board, Larsen said, but Locke maintains that this should not be an issue.

A meeting date with the facilitator has not been set, Larsen said, but said the minister has assured the board that it will be done immediately.

During city council’s Dec. 4 meeting, Mayor Brenda Locke and some councillors voiced “serious concerns,” with the report in front of them, saying there was no way they could accept it, before council voted unanimously to oppose the plan.

“The fact is, the numbers just don’t add up,” Coun. Linda Annis said prior to the meeting, in a press release.

“We do not do a good job of predicting the number of students and, unless we do better, we are always going to be short of schools.”

Locke said at the meeting that 12 new schools would only be enough to get students out of portables and too little space would be left to accommodate additional students.

Including secondary suites, an estimated 51,490 new units are expected in Surrey and White Rock for the same 10-year period. In addition to the 12 new schools, the district says that one school expansion is also needed as well as one replacement site.

“The fact is our city is growing and attracting young families. Surrey Memorial is bursting at the seams with newborns, families moving here to find affordable housing come with kids, and you only have to knock on a townhouse door in a neighbourhood like Clayton to see that there’s more than .71 children per household which is what the report suggests,” Annis said.

Citing enrolment numbers from the last two years, Coun. Harry Bains said that a projection of 9,777 new students over a 10-year period is far too low. This school year, there was an increase of more than 3,000 students, while the 2022-23 school year welcomed more than 2,200 additional students. These two years broke the pattern for the regular growth the district was used to – about 800 new students each year.

“I can see why Surrey Schools is in the state that they’re in because it looks like we’re not even asking for the money that we need, let alone actually getting it and that’s a huge problem,” Bains said.

In an emailed statement, the education ministry acknowledged that the need to involve a facilitator is “rare” since school districts and municipal governments work together on the plans.

“The province does not expect any impacts to capital projects that are in consideration or underway for the Surrey school district next year,” the statement reads.

“While it’s too soon to determine a timeline for this process, all parties share the same goal of reaching a resolution as quickly as possible in order to better support students and their families in Surrey.”

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Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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