Rural schools may bear the brunt of climate change disasters, a report from the BC School Trustees Association found. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

A new report from the BC School Trustees Association recommends that the Province invest $9B over the next five years to address infrastructure problems long faced by school districts throughout B.C.

The report, written by the Association’s Capital Working Group and based on statistics provided by UBC and the Ministry of Education and Child Care, breaks down recommendations into five categories. The Life Cycle and Deferred Maintenance section breaks down how much it will cost to replace and maintain aging infrastructure; the Climate Change section outlines recommendations for reducing districts’ greenhouse gas emissions and fortifying schools against climate disasters; the Student Population and School Area Standards sections address investments related to increasing school enrollment; and the General section recommends that the Ministry of Education establish a technical advisory committee to monitor school districts’ capital funding needs.

Chair of the Capital Working Group, Mike Murray, told the Goat in a phone call that while funding for school districts’ capital operations has increased in previous years, it falls short of their immediate and long-term funding needs. For example, the report found that repairs and upgrades in the 2023/2024 year totalled $422M, on top of the aforementioned $9B figure for repairs over the next five years – but the Ministry only budgeted $224.6M, Murray said.

The Association is recommending that the Province increase its capital budget bit by bit over the next several years to pay for infrastructure repairs and account for inflation.

“We don’t expect $422M to be provided to us overnight,” Murray said. “There’ll be a gradual catch up in this maintenance shortfall, and that’s something that’s been identified as critical.”

Despite this shortfall, Murray said the Association has a good working relationship with the Province.

“We have an ongoing relationship and dialogue with key staff in the Ministry of Education and Child Care,” Murray said. “They reviewed many drafts of this report and provided most of the data we rely upon to make our recommendations.”

The Association has shared a copy of the final report with the Ministry of Education and Child Care, Murray added. The organization will likely share the report’s climate change recommendations with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

A focus on climate is especially important for rural schools, Murray told The Goat. He recalls flooding in Merritt and Abbotsford and wildfires in Kelowna as examples of climate disasters that heavily impacted rural schools. 

And, while urban schools enjoy capital funding to accommodate a steadily-growing population and frequent seismic activity, many rural schools are not impacted by these variables, according to Murray. School District 57, for example, projects a slight decrease in total enrollment over the next three years.

“One of the problems rural districts have is they’re competing for limited resources, and these variables don’t impact them,” he said. “They’re not necessarily growing in terms of student population, and coupling that with the fact that they’re not in a seismically vulnerable place means that a chunk of money addressing that is going to those more urban areas.”

Increased capital investments from the Province could go towards fortifying rural schools against the consequences of climate change and bring them up to par with urban schools, said Murray. To that end, the Association recommends establishing a specific capital fund for climate change adaptation and emergency preparedness.

“The overall goal is to have sufficient funding available to address all of the identified capital requirements whenever and wherever they are,” he added. “We believe it’s not just about addressing climate extremes, it’s also about repairing and replacing buildings that are long overdue.”

The Association is also recommending that carbon offsets, which school districts must pay to the Province, go towards the Carbon Neutral Capital Program, which funds projects that lower districts’ carbon emissions.

According to Murray, the Ministry of Education and the School Trustees Association will continue discussing how to implement the report’s recommendations.

“There are things they’re already doing that are a step in the right direction,” said Murray, pointing to the increased use of prefabricated classrooms to cut down on the amount of portable trailers being used as teaching space. “We’re not expecting to receive everything that has been identified as a need here, at least not immediately, but we do expect to make some progress.”