Leaky B.C. schools to cost millions to fix
First, there was the leaky condo crisis that saw the Vancouver skyline littered with the tell-tale blue tarps that marked expensive renovations.
Now, B.C. schools are quietly struggling with a leaky school crisis that will cost taxpayers almost $380 million.
It's been estimated that more than a thousand condo buildings were affected during the leaky condo era, requiring still-ongoing repairs estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
And, of just over 700 schools built across British Columbia at the height of the shoddy construction era that resulted in the condo crisis, almost 400 schools are leaky or being assessed for leaks, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press.
Hundreds of schools, from Sooke at the southern end of Vancouver Island to the Stikine School District in the far north, have been caught up in the same problem that once plagued condominium owners in the province.
All the schools were built between 1985 and 2000.
The problem is so huge the provincial Risk Management Branch took it on in order to save school districts from attempting to wade through the reconstruction process.
Phil Grewer, executive director of the Risk Management Branch, said the estimated cost of fixing the problem is $377 million.
"That's from the stuff we know (of)," Grewer said.
The repair tab is being picked up by the Ministry of Education, however, Education Minister Shirley Bond declined requests for an interview.
Mould from wet buildings can cause illness, but Grewer said most of the problems have been found while they're in the exterior of the building.
"That's why you want to catch it. You want to catch it before it gets inside the building."
But not all schools were so lucky. In Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, A.B. Greenwell Elementary school was abandoned because of the high mould-spore count.
"We had been complaining about the smell in that school since 1995-96," said Dave Halme, president of the Lake Cowichan Teachers Association.
In January of this year, teachers decided there was something in the school's gymnasium that was making them sick.
"They declared it an unsafe place to work," said Halme.
Right in the middle of meeting of parents and staff about the problem, Halme said a man in a white plastic suit and a mask came in and started taping up plastic.
"There was a huge spot of mould growing on the carpet," Halme said.
Now the 130 children who were in that school are bussed to the community of Youbou, about 18 kilometres away, where a school was reopened for them.
"The majority of the parents said they did not want their kids going back to that school until the mould was out of there. That's all there is to it," he said.
Halme said the district is still deciding what should be done with the mouldy school.
In Maple Ridge, teachers at Riverside Elementary were concerned about the rate of cancer among employees in their leaky school and reported it to their union.
"Of course, all of that coincided with the timing of the retrofit and the renovations to the building," said George Serra, vice-president of the Maple Ridge Teachers Association.
The B.C. Cancer Agency later determined there was no cancer cluster in the building but Serra said parents still moved their children from the building, leaving the school at less than half of its student capacity.
Riverside is among the schools in the process of being fixed.
Grewer said five engineering firms are working on schools around the province, conducting building envelope condition assessments.
The effected schools are at various stages of repair. So far, about two dozen are listed as completed and about the same number are "in progress."
When water damage is noticed in a school, an initial risk assessment takes place and engineers decide if the problem is small or if a complete envelope assessment needs to be completed.
Currently, 123 schools are in the risk-assessment stage and could be moved to the next phase, a full assessment of the building envelope condition. More than 200 schools are in that stage.
Surrey's school district, which went through a dramatic population boom between 1985 and 2000, has an astonishing 48 schools being assessed in the program, far more than any other district.
Grewer said repair work is being prioritized depending on how bad the schools are, with the worst getting done first.
"Then it's a matter of having the money available to do it," he said.
Several lawsuits have been filed against builders, architects, contractors, plumbing and heating firms, inspectors, window installers and makers and many other trades.
In June, Delta School District filed a lawsuit over "construction deficiencies" in the building envelope of its own head office and at least two other school district head offices are also on the Risk Management Branch list.
Grewer said the lawsuits are often settled out of court for a portion of what the Education Ministry paid to fix the problem.