A vocal group of parents turned up in Steveston, at MLA John Yap’s office Saturday morning, to protest the Ministry of Education’s order to close schools to receive seismic upgrades.
“Richmond has come to a crossroad. Either we accept the decisions handed down by the Ministry of Education and the school board, or we make it known that Richmond parents and their supporters will fight to hold them accountable,” said Kim Nowitsky, a parent of Bridge elementary, and one of many PAC organizers of a city-wide petition that is believed to have reached 3,000 signatures as of Monday.
Parent Kelly Greene, of Diefenbaker elementary, told the several dozen rain-soaked, but determined, parents that about 6,700 students attend a school that is “not safe in the event of a major earthquake.”
Greene said the policy that the Ministry demand school districts reach near capacity, in order to qualify for seismic upgrades, is tantamount to holding children’s safety as “ransom.”
What “capacity,” or “utilization threshold” means exactly is, however, a matter of debate between the Ministry and the Richmond School District.
Last week, a Ministry spokesperson told the Richmond News the Ministry has not mandated that the district must reach district-wide 95 per cent capacity, or utilization, to qualify for facility upgrades, as previously suggested by the district.
In letters sent last week from the Ministry, to the district and Board of Education, it appears as though 95 per cent is, however, considered a “best practice” in “asset management.”
Board chair Debbie Tablotney said the district had been guiding its school closure policies with 95 per cent as “a target and guideline,” and she was “a little shocked” to hear otherwise.
Tablotney said the Ministry is now “in the process of changing their capital plan instructions. They’re seeking to clarify their instructions.”
“The long and short is we won’t get seismic upgrades unless we” increase capacity by closing schools, added Tablotney.
Presently, the district is at 81-85 per cent capacity, said Tablotney, and reaching 91 or 92 per cent will “probably” mean seismic funding will be put forth by the Ministry.
According to the Ministry, schools with low enrollment would “likely” result in “the least cost option for mitigating the seismic risk.”
Regardless of where the utilization threshold stands between the two parties, Greene said no schools should close, as it would mean more students would be put in portables and have to walk long distances to schools.
Greene and Nowitsky called for an 85 per cent threshold, to fall in line with other provinces. They also called for an immediate start to the seismic work.
“This is not just an attack on a few schools, it is part of the pervasive attitude of education cuts by the provincial government,” stated Greene at the rally.
In its letter to the district, the Ministry noted it created “capacity utilization thresholds” in 2003.
Over 20 elementary schools in Richmond need seismic upgrades.
Yap and other Richmond MLAs declined an invitation to address the parents, said Nowitsky.