VICTORIA — Education Minister Mike Bernier has announced a $45-million fix-it fund for schools across British Columbia, but the New Democrats say that does nothing to ease the fears of thousands of parents concerned about school closures and overcrowding.
Bernier said Thursday the money will cover upgrades at 124 schools and involves heating, roof, window, mechanical, electrical and safety repairs.
He said he is aware some school districts are dealing with difficult decisions as they consider closing schools due to low enrolment.
"I understand the emotions that are raised by parents when school districts, because of declining enrolment, are having to look at closing schools or modifying their budgets," Bernier said. "Realistically, that makes for some tough decisions."
The school board in the south Okanagan community of Osoyoos voted recently to close the only high school in town. Schools in nearby Penticton and Summerland, as well as two elementary schools in the Vancouver Island community of Campbell River have also been shuttered.
School boards in Prince George, Armstrong and Quesnel managed to avert school closures this year after confronting budget issues.
Bernier said he will be in the Surrey school district Friday after meeting with parents and hearing that new schools are needed because overcrowding is a major issue. He said he will be touring a school, but would not provide details about any announcements.
Surrey parent Cindy Dalgliesh said Bernier was told that too many students are in portables instead of classrooms. She said parents are worried that overcrowding contributes to loss of student attachment to school culture and raises the possibility they will join gangs.
NDP education critic Rob Fleming said he was told one Surrey school was built for 1,200 students but that 2,000 students are currently enrolled there. He said students attend school in shifts, with half going in the mornings and the rest in the afternoon.
"The kids who are in the first shift can not get after-school help in math, science or wherever else they want to improve their performance," he said. "The teachers are occupied with the second shift."
Fleming said the province's failed education funding policies will come back to haunt the governing party in next year's election.
"There's nothing in this announcement that will address the key concerns that literally tens of thousands of parents have been coming out to town hall meetings held by school boards over the last few months to talk to this minister about," he said.
Bernier said the fix-it fund is included in his ministry's $1.7-billion capital spending budget over the next three years.
"When you look at investing money in schools it's all about making sure it helps with the longevity," Bernier said. "If your roof starts to leak, you're not going to let it leak. You want to repair that."