British Columbia

Seismic upgrade delays fault of Vancouver School Board: Education Minister Peter Fassbender

B.C.'s education minister says he blames the Vancouver School Board for delaying seismic upgrades to schools, but the board says government is adding costs it can't afford.

Fassbender says funding is in place, but school board says government adding costs it can't afford

B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender responded to concerns about delays for seismic upgrades for schools on Friday morning. (Farrah Merali)

B.C.'s education minister is blaming the Vancouver School Board for delaying seismic upgrades to schools, saying without recent changes the process might have taken until 2045.

On Friday morning Minister Peter Fassbender responded to an unconfirmed report that the upgrades are now expected to take a decade longer than previously anticipated.

In 2005, the province committed to upgrades to dozens of older schools in the city, and set a deadline of 2020 to finish the work.

According to an unconfirmed report, that deadline was pushed back to 2030 for schools in Vancouver, and to 2025 for schools outside Vancouver,

Speaking at a news conference called to respond to the report on Friday morning, Fassbender denied the timeline was accurate and that the province was to blame for Vancouver's extended delays.

"The accusation that has been made is false," he said.

Funding in place says minister

Fassbender said there is money for the upgrades, but he blamed the school board's "inability to bring forward project definitions that meet its requirements," for the delays.

If the VSB had continued with its past strategy, the upgrades for about 69 Vancouver schools deemed to be high risk would not be finished for another 30 years, he said.

Henry Hudson Elementary School is just one of 60 Vancouver school rated in an 2004 assessment as H1, meaning parts of the school are at the highest risk of widespead damage or structural failure during a major earthquake. (Google Street View)

"At the pace the Vancouver school board was working before, it would have taken to 2045 to complete all the projects.That is unacceptable," Fassbender said.

"The money has been there — is there — to do all of the projects in Vancouver. The funding has never been an issue. What has been an issue is the inability of the Vancouver School Board to bring forward good initiatives that are bathed in good science and good engineering."

That is why he created a joint project office with the Vancouver School Board to move the projects forward faster, he said.

"I have every confidence that we are going to get it done," Fassbender said. "I believe the new administration and the new school board is going to work through the project office ... to get the projects going."

Fassbender said in order for projects to go ahead, school boards need to be prepared to move students to existing schools, rather than house them in portables.

He also said if school boards want to expand the scope of any seismic upgrade to include other elements — a problem suggested is at the root of delays in Vancouver — they need to find the additional funding in their existing budgets.

"I can tell you that every other school district is doing that and we are not having the delays we have had with Vancouver in the past."

Trustee says minister trying to shift blame

Vancouver School Board trustee Patti Bacchus claims the government's constant changing of the funding requirements has been causing the delays.

"They used to fund portables if we needed to move students around during construction. They've now changed that," said Bacchus.

"A year ago, Mr. Fassbender came out and said that school boards would be expected to pay up to half the cost of their seismic upgrades and sent everybody into a panic because we just don't have that money."

"They don't seem to have a plan. We have asked for several years, since George Abbott was the minister, to help us establish a dedicated office. We could see the pace is far too slow.

"It's taken them until now to allow us to set that up. So to suggest we have been delaying is absurd. They are trying to shift blame."

Vancouver School Board Trustee Patti Bacchus says new delays to seismic upgrades of high risk schools are unacceptable. (CBC)

Despite a decade of upgrades, Bacchus said there are still more than 40 Vancouver schools that are still deemed at high risk of collapsing during a major earthquake.

"We're not talking moderate risk, these are all high risk, H1 and H2 buildings that are expected to have significant structural failure in the event of an earthquake," said Bacchus.

A rating of H1 means a school is at the highest risk of widespread damage or structural failure during a major earthquake.

A 2012 survey found that there were more than 150 schools across the province at high risk of substantial damage during an earthquake, and pegged the cost of upgrading them at $1.3 billion.

Last year the government announced that school boards would have to pay half the cost of seismic upgrades.

"They find different reasons, to say gee, here we are 10 years into the program  and now they're saying this a problem," said Bacchus.

"I don't buy that. Parents certainly shouldn't accept that. These children's lives should not be put at risk."

Budget doubled since 2005

Fassbender said when the seismic upgrade plan was announced a decade ago the budget was set at $1.1 billion, but much has been learned since then about the difficulty of the projects and so the budget has been doubled to $2.2 billion.

Fassbender also highlighted the work the government has funded:

  • 145 projects have been completed.
  • 11 are underway.
  • 9 are in development.
  • 48 are in planning.

After Fassbender spoke, his ministry released a statement clarifying the timeline for completion of the remaining seismic projects in the province and in Vancouver.

"The engineering and scientific partners in the program, feel that work can be accomplished in all districts (23), excluding Vancouver, by 2025. Only 24 of B.C.'s 60 school districts have high-risk schools."

"The 2030 revised APEGBC [Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C.] completion timeline is for Vancouver alone," said the statement.

In Vancouver:

  • 20 projects have been completed.
  • Four are under construction.
  • Two are proceeding to construction.
  • 23 are in planning/supported.
  • 40 have not yet been supported

With files from Farrah Merali