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BC’s Ballooning Backlog for Fixing Schools

Thousands of stacked-up work orders are causing safety issues, says a union staffer.

Katie Hyslop 28 May 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop is a reporter with The Tyee.

Ramps built at the wrong elevation. New stairs that weren’t up to code.

“We’ve actually had a school where the lights have fallen down,” said Tammy Murphy, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 728, which represents Surrey school district support staff including tradespeople and custodians. It was outside contractors, not district staff, who were responsible for that work, Murphy said.

Due to a support staff shortage, thousands of backlogged work orders and the district’s habit of hiring outside contractors to fill the gap, deferred and shoddy maintenance is beginning to have a noticeable impact on school buildings, Murphy said.

“Our carpentry department has 2,500 work orders, that’s how far behind they are,” said Murphy.

The Surrey school district asserted to The Tyee that any mistakes external contractors make are fixed by the contractors at their expense, except in “rare occasions” where district staff do “minor or esthetic adjustments” to contractors’ work.

Murphy is concerned about the safety of hiring outside contractors who don’t go through the “rigorous” background checks district staff do. Contractors cost more and deliver poorer-quality work than their staff counterparts, she said.

“Our trades departments end up redoing a lot of work that is contracted out. I’m guessing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Murphy. The need to redo work takes away from time staff could be working on other maintenance needs in the district, she added.

851px version of SurreyClassroomCeiling.jpg
Support staff in the Surrey school district often redo shoddy maintenance work by outside contractors hired by the school board, says CUPE Local 728 president Tammy Murphy. 'We’ve actually had a school where the lights have fallen down.' Photos via CUPE Local 728.

All that deferred and delayed maintenance adds up. The provincial tally of deferred school maintenance projects has nearly doubled to $8.97 billion, up from $5 billion when the NDP first formed government in 2017.

As of Sept. 30, 2023, the most recent data available from the Ministry of Education and Child Care, the districts with the highest maintenance delay estimates are Vancouver ($1.1 billion), Surrey ($1.06 billion), Coquitlam ($546 million), Greater Victoria ($400 million) and Burnaby ($396 million).

For context, the Surrey district’s total 2023-24 budget was just over $1 billion.

A ministry spokesperson told The Tyee via email that deferred maintenance amounts may have changed as work was done over the current school year, or older schools were replaced with new builds. Deferred maintenance amounts also include components that have reached their warranty expirations but are still working.

It’s up to districts to regularly inspect their buildings, track their maintenance and communicate their maintenance and repair needs in their annual capital plan submissions to the province, the spokesperson wrote.

The ministry is providing its 60 school districts with $700 million in capital funding over three years through a variety of funding programs, including $300 million in the 2024-25 school year, for repair and maintenance projects.

Another $3.75 billion is going towards “major projects to improve, replace and build new schools” over the next three years, the spokesperson added.

BC School Trustees Association president Carolyn Broady said that while trustees are “very grateful” for this ministry funding, it isn’t enough to cover the gaps.

For example, engineers have told the association that $422 million in urgent school maintenance is needed over the 2024-25 school year alone.

“The bulk of our buildings were built post-World War II, so the ’50s and the ’60s,” Broady said. Everything from HVAC systems to roofs to classroom technology requires regular upgrades, she said.

Plus the province’s CleanBC plan requires energy-reducing upgrades for all government buildings, including schools, as part of their emissions reduction goal.

Deferrals cost more in the long run

Inflation of the cost of materials and labour is one issue, Broady noted. As is the lack of dedicated funding for technology upgrades — districts have to draw from the same pot of money whether they need new computers or a new roof.

“You might not get your library upgraded. It may mean that it takes over three years to get a roof replaced,” Broady said, adding that issues like heat waves and forest fire smoke increase the need for up-to-date HVAC systems in all schools, too.

Deferring maintenance can end up costing districts more in the long run when it leads to emergencies, like the outdated roof springing a leak, Broady said.

“And that leak will take priority over doing the gym floor in another school,” she said by way of example. “Always moving that money around to prioritize what is the most urgent.”

For its part, the Surrey school district defended its use of outside contractors, as well as staff tradespeople, to reduce its maintenance backlog.

“This balanced approach allows the district to optimize resource management and guarantee that projects are executed with efficiency and excellence,” a district spokesperson told The Tyee in an emailed statement.

“Some contracted work involves specialized skills or equipment not readily available in-house,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that in the rare cases where contractors have “unsupervised access to students,” they must first undergo criminal record checks in addition to any background checks required by their company.

The BC School Trustees Association recently finished a report on capital projects and deferred maintenance. It will be released publicly later this year, part of the association’s messaging for the upcoming provincial election, Broady said.  [Tyee]

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