Any enthusiasm within the Chilliwack school community over Friday’s announced expansion of Promontory elementary school must be tempered by a simple reality.
It’s not enough.
The money – $4.8 million – is welcome in a school district that has seen annual enrolment growth of two to three per cent over the past two years alone.
But it will hardly alleviate the congestion in most Chilliwack schools south of the highway.
Local MLAs were rightly proud of the provincial government commitment, announced before cheering students at the school on Friday.
The Chilliwack school district had lobbied hard for the funds, saying overcrowding in the district had reached a crisis point.
There are currently twice as many students enrolled at Promontory than what the school was built for. They’ve spilled out into eight portables, providing a learning environment that parents, staff and even students acknowledge is far from ideal.
Friday’s funding announcement, coupled with $1.3 million set aside by the school district, will allow construction of eight new classrooms and provide additional classroom space for 200 students.
There are 229 Promontory students currently in portables.
Many other students, who live in the Promontory subdivision but can’t attend the school because there is no room, must travel to neigbouring elementary schools.
And that’s just Promontory.
According to the school district, the seven elementary schools on the southside are 35 per cent over capacity, with a deficit (as of Sept., 2016) of 869 seats.
Nor is the overcrowding expected to end anytime soon. Unsworth elementary, for example, is closing its catchment area to students from outside the area this fall. That’s because the school – already at 133 per cent capacity – is trying to anticipate additional enrolment from the new subdivisions under way or in the planning stages in the area.
The district had asked for $6 million this year to acquire property on the southside for a new school. The request was part of the $20 million it wanted for 11 priority projects in the first year of its five-year capital plan.
The Promontory expansion topped that inventory. And trustees are no doubt happy to strike one major project off that list.
However, much more needs to be done, including a $14.8 million expansion planned for G.W. Graham.
These are not new requests. Chilliwack trustees have said for years that the city’s sustained population growth has made the need for new school construction critical.
According to MLA Laurie Throness, Chilliwack’s congested schools is a good problem to have. In other parts of his riding, he said, school districts are closing schools.
That may be true, but it will come as little comfort to parents whose children are looking at an elementary career spent in a trailer or on a bus travelling to another school.
Nor will Chilliwack school trustees draw much comfort from the way money was found for the Promontory expansion. According to Throness, approval barely squeaked through in this budget year. The money, he said, only became available because a project elsewhere in the province was cancelled.
Growth on Chilliwack’s southside will continue. The density is not new, nor is it surprising. It is following a trajectory that has long been anticipated.
It’s time the education ministry acknowledged this growth and took seriously the calls for new school construction on the city’s south side.
Greg Knill is editor of the Chilliwack Progress