Surrey school trustee Laurae McNally had no idea the storm she was unleashing when she asked city hall to halt development in areas of massive growth.
“I threw the cat amongst the pigeons, I think,” she said Monday. “I’m just going nuts. When I went to bed last night, I had 211 emails from people saying ‘Thank you, somebody needed to do this.’”
And at a high school music gala in South Surrey Saturday night McNally said she was “bombarded by people saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ So I knew I’d hit a chord.”
McNally, who is the lone independent on Surrey school board, is “appalled” over the amount of growth in three Surrey neighbourhoods. She put forward a motion at a school board meeting last week asking city council to curb development.
The motion calls to “temporarily suspend all new development approvals in the Clayton, Grandview/South Surrey and South Newton regions until the Surrey School District receives adequate provincial capital funding to support the many new students in these regions.”
It passed unanimously.
Surrey’s school district is bursting at the seams. There are 70,000 students in the district with another 1,000 students expected this fall. There are nearly 300 portables at Surrey schools and the $4 million it takes to have them could be used to hire 50 teachers. Sunnyside Elementary is expected to require five – maybe six – Kindergarten classes.
“This is really the very worst situation I have seen in my 30 years as an elected official,” said McNally, who got politically involved decades ago as a mother of a child in a school that was overcapacity.
In the ’80s, she said, “you could almost set your watch” by the time in the spring when government would approve funding requests. Today, she said, “you never know” and whatever funding the district gets is “a drop in the bucket.”
The district can’t even ask for capital funding until the schools are already over capacity. Even after government approvals, it takes two to three years before the new schools or expansions are ready to open.
Surrey council used to help bridge the gap, McNally noted.
When the late Don Ross was mayor, she said the city actually purchased land for new schools, which the district later paid back to the city.
Those days, too, are gone.
“I’m not anti-development but we can’t keep up… I drive around looking at growth and I’m just appalled.”
McNally said parents, students and teachers have been patient. “If I was a parent, I don’t know if I would be this patient,” she said.
School board chair Shawn Wilson (Surrey First) said the issue has gone from serious to “critical.”
Some high schools are on modified bell schedules, he said, “but if we have to start looking at things like split shifts, like a day and an afternoon shift, those are dramatic measures.
“Or even worse than that, what if we have to start saying no to French Immersion or Fine Arts programs?”
But that may become a reality, said Wilson.
“The three levels of government really need to look at what can be done,” he said. “The system is not working right…. Somebody get their act together and help us out here. You can’t keep piling people into this city without providing services for them.”
Mayor Linda Hepner told the Now a development “freeze” wouldn’t be taken lightly.
“I support the fact that those are infrastructure issues that need to be resolved,” said Hepner.
“My job is to make sure that we balance a robust economy with the infrastructure needs.”
The mayor said she’s also interested in a conversation about the existing funding model and how the city can help advocate in the process.
Hepner said “it’s a good problem to have.”
“We aren’t looking for circumstances of diminished economic activity like Newfoundland. We’re in a province that’s looking at prosperity and success.
“That is a measure of success. While it has challenges, is still a better place to be.”
In the B.C. legislature Tuesday morning. Education Minister Mike Bernier said the province has supplied $337 million to Surrey’s school district since 2011 but acknowledged there’s “more to do.” Despite being asked by Surrey-Whalley MLA Bruce Ralston, Bernier had no specific comment on whether the government would rethink the current funding model.
Surrey mother Mahsheed Murad Wahid said she’s not pleased that her second grader is learning in a portable.
“If the city is allowing townhouse developments to pop up like mushrooms it needs to provide schools as well,” said Wahid.
Sabrina Moe-Block’s family has chosen to move out of the Clayton area partly because it’s just too packed.
“Too many people, despite the fact it is a good neighbourhood,” she said.
Finally, an online petition is calling on Bernier and Surrey city council to suspend new developments in Surrey until the province funds new schools at pace.
-With a file from Peace Arch News