Ministry's seismic progress slow going

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      Parents, teachers, and local politicians say they are mystified by the Ministry of Education’s recent list of schools to be seismically upgraded. On May 23, in the wake of the May 12 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province that claimed 70,000 victims—9,000 of them schoolchildren—Education Minister Shirley Bond’s office sent out a news release touting the government’s commitment to seismically upgrading B.C. schools, with a list of 10 schools recently approved for upgrades and retrofitting.

      The announcement seemed aimed at silencing critics who, following the Sichuan disaster, had turned the spotlight on the government’s failure to live up to its 2005 promise to seismically upgrade more than 700 B.C. schools within the next 15 years, with 80 high-priority schools to be completed by 2008. To date, according to the Ministry of Education’s own Web site, just 13 high-priority seismic projects have been completed, and only 18 are under construction. Of those 13 completed projects, only one—phase one of the upgrade to Captain James Cook elementary (phase two is said to be under construction)—is in Vancouver. This despite the fact that the ministry’s own seismic assessment lists 74 Vancouver schools as being high priority, 22 as moderate/high, 10 as moderate, and two as low. That makes Vancouver home to the greatest number of high-risk schools in the province.

      Of the 10 new schools approved by the ministry for upgrades, only four—Wilfrid Laurier elementary, Simon Fraser elementary, John Norquay elementary, and the Ideal Mini School—are in Vancouver and not one is listed as high priority in the ministry’s seismic-assessment document. Both Wilfrid Laurier and Simon Fraser are rated as moderate/high, John Norquay is moderate, and the Ideal Mini School does not appear on the list at all.

      “You have to wonder what was the point of spending the money to do a risk assessment and prioritizing buildings if you’re going to fast-track lower-priority buildings,” a perplexed Tracy Monk told the Georgia Straight in conversation at the Kitsilano home she shares with her husband and two daughters, aged 14 and 11. In 2002, following an earthquake in Italy in which 26 students were killed, Monk, a family physician, formed Families for School Seismic Safety (FSSS) with fellow concerned parent Eugene Hodgson and Vancouver Technical secondary graduate Nathan Lusignan, who had campaigned for seismic upgrades at his high-risk high school—upgrades that are only now under construction. FSSS was central in pressing the province into its 2005 promise to upgrade schools.

      “When the commitment arrived in 2005”¦I believed matters were now in hand, that they’ve allocated funding and it’s just a matter of letting it happen,” said Monk, whose children are in separate high-risk schools. “It took a few years to realize, wait a second, progress is glacial.”

      Bond defended herself against criticisms in a phone call, insisting that the fast-tracked schools were never meant to be completed within three years. “I think the phrase was ”˜projects under way’,” she said. “Anyone who knows the size of some of these seismic projects would know that you simply cannot start from ground zero and actually have a project complete, or 95 of them, within that window of time.” When asked about the selection process for school projects, Bond said, “Generally speaking, we are working on doing the highest-priority schools first.”¦In some cases, there have been some changes to that list.” She added that school boards have found the process challenging, reiterating that “this is the first government that actually has a $1.5-billion seismic process in place”—an assertion that leaves Susan Lambert, vice president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, decidedly unimpressed.

      “The parroting of the highest funding ever belies the fact that we haven’t had attention to education funding in this province for many years now,” Lambert told the Straight, “and the seismic-upgrading project is just one of the examples of inattention to the whole portfolio of education by this minister.”

      But a Vancouver board of education trustee said the blame for the slow progress should not be heaped entirely on the minister’s shoulders. “I’m not apologizing for the provincial government,” said board trustee Ken Denike. “I’m just saying there are other concerns.”¦There was the announcement [in 2005], there was money to be brought forward, and then we got into the details, and due diligence requires a lot more effort than I think anybody envisioned.”

      Denike said priority for seismic upgrading needs to go hand in hand with other decisions. “There were some situations where we couldn’t move on doing a seismic upgrade until we found out what we were doing with the school,” he explained. “The pace is picking up, but it’s taking longer than anybody anticipated because of the details. Each of these buildings are a one-off. It’s not as if you can take a template and just apply it.”

      Denike noted that the four Vancouver schools most recently announced for upgrading are smaller projects that are being bundled together. “The government came out with a program that permitted bundling of schools”¦up to $2.5 million per school to a total of $10 million,” he said. “Those schools would not be a high priority; they’re ones that require some marginal things done.”

      Vancouver–Mount Pleasant NDP MLA Jenny Kwan, whose riding includes the high-priority-rated Britannia secondary school, told the Straight she’s puzzled by the selection process for upgrading schools and concerned about the potential disaster looming on the horizon. “From a public-safety point of view, one would have assumed a school like Britannia would have gotten the funding [for seismic upgrading],” she told the Straight by phone. “It is utilized almost all of the time—both in the daytime and evening hours—by the community. One would have assumed that really fits the criteria for extra-high priority, because not only is the building at risk itself, the usage of the entire site is very high both in the daytime and nighttime.”

      According to a report presented at the 13th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering in 2004, the probability of a structurally damaging earthquake within the next 50 years in Vancouver and Victoria is 12 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Alison Bird, a seismologist with Natural Resources Canada, told the Straight the province is “the most seismically hazardous area in Canada, southwest B.C. particularly.”¦As more time passes, the seismic risk goes up if something big doesn’t happen.”

      Lusignan, Monk’s FSSS codirector, told the Straight he was angered by the province’s lack of speed and coordination on the issue, noting that prisons, liquor depots, and the legislature have all been seismically upgraded. “Clearly, when they committed to doing this over 15 years, they’ve not met that time line. I mean, we’re probably looking at a 100-year time line at this point. And when it comes to building highways or building Olympic infrastructure, we’re able to do it over
      a couple of years. Obviously, it’s just a lack of political will at this point, and not a lack of technical expertise or a lack of money.” -