Premier John Horgan insists his government is not cutting back funding for new school construction, despite three major school districts reporting no cash from the province this year for new facilities and major expansions.
Horgan was responding to reports from Mission School District that a new $90-million high school promised in the 2020 election was suddenly indefinitely deferred because of what the district believes is provincial budget pressures to rebuild infrastructure damaged by fires and floods.
“It’s news to me,” said Horgan. “I’d like to see the correspondence. It certainly did not come from treasury board. We have no freeze in place. We have the largest capital budget in B.C. history, which is focused on building new schools, seismically upgrading those that are at risk, as well as roads and public transit and other infrastructure.”
However, the Sooke School District, which encompasses Horgan’s riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca, said in a statement that none of its requested major capital building projects were approved by the provincial government either for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
“As the fastest-growing school district in British Columbia, major capital funding from the Ministry of Education is critical for keeping pace with the ever-growing student enrollment in our communities,” the district said in a statement.
“Without capital funding, the district must look at other solutions for managing growth through our operational budget like the use and addition of portables to schools with the physical capacity to accommodate them.”
Horgan admitted he was “surprised” at the statement. There are currently two schools under construction in the Sooke District, set to open this September.
“We are putting up schools as quickly as we possibly can in the fastest growing district on Vancouver Island,” he said.
“There may not be new dollars in this capital budget, but there are projects in planning, projects in construction, land acquisition is underway, not just in Sooke and Surrey and other fast-growing districts. There is no constraint in our capital budget at this time.”
However, a later statement by the Ministry of Education confirmed there is not enough funding for the government to build all the schools it had planned.
“As we continue to address seismic safety concerns at schools throughout B.C. and build more classrooms to address enrolment growth in many communities, the financial impacts of the pandemic and recent flooding events have resulted in the deferral of seven school capital projects,” the ministry said in a statement.
“This was done in order to support 11 urgent school capital projects to proceed to business case, including replacing facilities deemed unsafe for long-term use and construction projects to create new student seats in areas seeing high enrollment.”
It did not name the deferred schools or new urgent schools.
Opposition BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon said the government is refusing to admit that its recent announcement of a $1-billion Royal BC Museum replacement is squeezing out available capital funding for other projects, like schools.
“What is going to be a billion-and-a-half dollar extravaganza on this museum…is pushing out other capital projects, which should have a higher priority,” Falcon said in an interview.
The government has also been accused of prioritizing the museum’s seismic priority, when 250 B.C. schools remain waiting for seismic repairs with limited provincial funding.
That narrative will likely pick up steam after the Vancouver School Board wrote the Ministry of Education late last month to say three of its highest-risk school seismic repair projects had been indefinitely deferred for no reason, leaving more than 4,000 secondary students attending seismically unsafe schools. Vancouver also received no new major capital funding this year.
“I would argue that there’s a direct connection between the fact that they’re going ahead with this museum fiasco, and the fact that they’re now going to have to torque back some of their other spending,” said Falcon.
“Because at the end of the day, as much as this government wants to believe that they can just spend wildly on everything, the truth is they can’t. And there’s a limit to everything. And I think they’re starting to hit their limits.”
The government’s most recent budget outlined $3.1 billion to maintain, replace or renovate K-12 schools over the next three years — 80 of which are currently in design, construction or occupied, with another three dozen in the business case stage.
However, much of that money has been previously announced. For example, the budget contains the two new schools under construction in Sooke, which were approved many years ago and are only nearing completion now.
Mission school district board chair Tracy Loffler told CHEK News the district is frustrated that the new high school promised by local NDP MLAs Bob D’Eith and Pam Alexis in the 2020 election has now been indefinitely delayed, without any explanation.
“The ministry has said to school boards and school districts there are significant capital cost pressures,” said Loffler. “They had to replace four schools in Merritt, a bunch in Abbotsford, and fires and floods. The generation assumption is there’s only so much in the bucket.”
She said the word “freeze” is not contained in government’s letter, but school districts are making assumptions based on what is happening.
“It’s a tricky balance because I understand the government is accountable to the taxpayers and can’t just write blank cheques, but it really to us feels like we’re further behind on this project than we were two years ago.”