Surrey needs “zero tolerance approach” to school portables: Councillor Linda Annis

FOLLOWING a Surrey School District presentation to city council on Monday, Councillor Linda Annis is calling on the city, school board and province to take a “zero tolerance” approach to school portables in the Surrey. Annis said the current process for planning, funding and building schools in Surrey has “missed the mark” and a more creative solution needs to be found.

“We already have students in 370 portables in our school district, and frankly there are more kids on the way,” said Annis. “The school district is proposing a budget to reduce that backlog by half over a five-year period, but by then, thousands more students will be here. If we don’t take a zero tolerance approach to the issue of portables they will become a permanent fixture in our city, and students and their tax-paying parents deserve better. We need to re-think the current method of planning, funding and building schools, and city hall has a role to play here because we’re responsible for zoning, development, and permits. I’d like the city to work with our colleagues on the school board and in Victoria to take a new approach that will get students out of portables permanently.”

Annis said one of the best solutions for delivering schools faster and more efficiently is found in Saskatchewan where Vancouver-based Concert Infrastructure, the public-private partner, bundles multiple school construction projects and builds them at one time. As a result, the private sector partner is responsible for delivering the schools on time, on  budget, and with savings to taxpayers because of the efficiencies that come with economies of scale and bulk buying.

“This model works and it means schools are being built faster and at less cost to taxpayers,” noted Annis. “In addition, their school designs allow for modular additions that are actually part of the school, unlike portables that are parked next door. At the same time, the private sector partner is responsible for maintenance and upkeep. The fact is, governments are notorious when it comes to not keeping up with maintenance, particularly when budgets are tight. As a result they will often simply defer the work that’s needed. In the Saskatchewan model the private sector partner doesn’t have that option and as a result maintenance and upkeep are not allowed to slide.”

Annis said she’d like to see city hall create a “fast track” process and team to work on making sure the city isn’t part of the problem when it comes to land assembly, zoning and permits so that schools can be built faster and more efficiently.

“I believe a growing Surrey is a good thing, but the current model for school construction just doesn’t deliver what we need when we need it,” said Annis. “Let’s not be afraid to look for good ideas in other places, and for me Saskatchewan would be a good place to start. If we don’t think outside of the existing process then we shouldn’t be surprised when portables are still with us in the years ahead. They don’t have to be, but we need to do things differently and the city, school board and province all have their part to play.”