Seismic upgrades stall at schools amid education dispute
Published Monday, January 2, 2017 1:38PM PST
Last Updated Monday, January 2, 2017 7:15PM PST
A massive undertaking to seismically upgrade all of British Columbia's high-risk schools appears to have stalled in Vancouver amid an ongoing dispute between the province and the public school board.
That means in the event of a severe earthquake, some of the schools in B.C.'s largest city likely wouldn't be left standing.
More than half of the schools in the district are seismically unsafe. Five are currently under construction, four are on deck for upgrades, 21 have been approved for feasibility studies and 37 others are still waiting to be addressed.
"Our schools are some of the most dangerous buildings that we have in the event of an earthquake," former Vancouver School Board trustee Patti Bacchus said.
"All of our kids deserve to be in safe schools."
Bacchus was present at a 2013 news conference where Premier Christy Clark announced more than half a billion dollars in funding for seismic upgrades in the province.
"She promised there was a whole list of hundreds of millions of dollars of schools that she said would be funded and done within three years," Bacchus recalled.
"Sixteen of those schools were in Vancouver. Not one of them has even a shovel in the ground."
Bacchus no longer works for the board. The entire VSB was fired by the province months after becoming the only one of the province's 60 school boards that was unable to balance its budget.
The board was dismissed in October 2016 following an audit conducted for the Ministry of Education. The minister said the VSB had been focused on a political agenda rather than its fiscal responsibilities, and made the announcement just hours before a scheduled board meeting where trustees were expected to finally pass a balanced budget.
The board was replaced by a single trustee, who will serve in its place until a new board is elected. Dianne Turner, former superintendent for the Delta school district, said one of her main priorities would be accelerating seismic upgrades at high-risk schools.
"We have 21 schools in Vancouver that have been seismically upgraded. We have 69 requiring seismic upgrades," Turner said.
"For children to go to school and staff to work in a school that's seismically upgraded and a safe environment is a big priority for me."
One of the schools, Annie B. Jamieson Elementary in Vancouver's Oakridge neighbourhood, is set to undergo a $13.1 million upgrade next winter.
Funding for another of the schools, Lord Tennyson Elementary, was re-announced 10 days after the VSB was fired. But the timelines for other schools in need of renovations has not been provided.
The province said the upgrades are a priority, telling CTV News now that the conflicts with the previous VSB are over, the work can begin.
"We are now in a position to move forward more quickly with seismic mitigation projects for Vancouver's schools because of the stability we have at the school district with the priority now on expediting seismic projects instead of the previous board's constant focus on political advocacy," Minister Mike Bernier said in a statement.
And progress is already being made outside of Vancouver, with 160 schools now complete. Since the project began, the province has spent $1.2 billion, and still has 118 schools to be addressed.
"Districts such as North Vancouver, Delta and Campbell River have made seismic mitigation a priority and they are nearing completion of all schools in their districts," a statement from the Ministry of Education said.
" Despite the past delays, since 2001, government has spent over $234 million and is committed to spend another $566 million for a total investment of over $800 million to ensure schools in Vancouver are seismically safe for students."
The entire seismic mitigation program has an expected completion date of 2030.
"Hopefully it's earlier than that," Turner said.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Sarah MacDonald