Adding and improving French schools could cost BC more than $1 billion

Canada's Supreme Court ordered BC to build a new school in Abbotsford and replace or significantly upgrade another school in Chilliwack as part of necessary province-wide upgrades.

By Tyler Olsen | May 10, 2022 |5:00 am

Two years after the Supreme Court declared that Abbotsford required a new French-only school and Chilliwack needed a much better one, the province is taking the first steps to make that happen—eventually.

But adding and improving facilities in the Fraser Valley and across BC could cost well over $1 billion, significantly adding to the province’s massive and growing school building bills.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Francophone parents the right to have their children educated in French-language schools. (The schools are different from French Immersion schools, which aim to provide schooling to non-native speakers.) But many such French-language schools, including one in Chilliwack, provide worse schooling than those of their English-language counterparts, the Supreme Court declared in 2020. Those schools need to be better, while others deserve a school they don’t already have, the court ruled.

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The ruling

BC has a specific school board—the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (CSF)—to manage and run its French-language schools. And prior to 2020, the CSF was engaged in a long-running court battle in which the board said it required more funding from the province to fulfill its constitutional duties.

In 2020, after multiple appeals had sent the case to the highest court in the country, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the BC government had failed to provide the capital funding necessary to allow the CSF to deliver French-language schooling to those who deserved access. And it laid out exactly which areas need new or better schools. For instance, the court ruled that Mission’s school deserves an adequate gym. (You can read the ruling here.)

The Charter’s guarantees have limits: it doesn’t require schools to be built in areas with very small numbers of Francophone children. But the 2020 school ruling found that if the number of eligible students in an area was comparable to those served by BC’s smaller schools, then the CSF should be able to operate a French-only school (rather than have to bus students long distances to a larger school.) And the French-only schools that exist should be just as good as other schools, the court said.

Currently, Abbotsford has no CSF school. Chilliwack does—École La Vérendrye in Greendale—but it’s in sorry condition. The court heard that it is in a “state of disrepair,” located on a “busy industrial road,” and “surrounded by agricultural land on which activities causing strong, unpleasant odours take place.” The school also has neither a real library nor a gymnasium, and its parking lot is too small to accommodate school buses.

The court declared that the school “shows the quality of the educational experience provided there is meaningfully inferior to that of the experience at the majority’s schools.”

In its ruling, the court declared that Abbotsford needed an elementary school with space for at least 85 students, that Chilliwack’s school needed dramatic upgrades and improvements, and that the Central Fraser Valley area as a whole (Abbotsford, Mission, and Chilliwack) deserve a facility that could accommodate 120 secondary school students. (The ruling said such a space could be incorporated alongside an elementary school.)

Mission also has a “concerning” situation linked to its substandard gymnasium, though the 2020 ruling said the situation should be decided by BC’s courts.

The provincial response

More than 18 months after the Supreme Court ruling, the provincial government has begun to lay the legal groundwork to start planning for how schools will be built or improved.

The province said last week that it was creating a “new, long-term capital strategy for the CSF” to meet the requirements set out by the Charter and the 2020 court decision.

A Ministry of Education spokesperson said that the CSF, with help from the Ministry of Education, is working to prepare business cases that will set the stage for projects in eight different communities. One of those projects is the expansion of the school in Mission. An emailed statement from the province didn’t mention plans for schools in Abbotsford or Chilliwack.

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The province said it has spent $53 million since 2017 on CSF school or land purchases in Burnaby, Victoria, Kamloops, and Penticton. But the CSF’s capital plan shows the cost to the province to meet the court’s orders is likely to be many times that sum.

The plan was passed by the CSF board “to implement the court’s decision,” and tallies up $1.8 billion in suggested spending. That includes more than $1 billion needed to build new schools across the province and nearly $500 million just to buy the land necessary.

The plan estimates an Abbotsford school would cost about $55 million, plus $20 million for the land. The Chilliwack school upgrade is expected to cost $20 million, plus $5 million for land. And improving Mission’s gym is projected to cost nearly $5 million.

It’s unclear, though, when any schools will get built or improved in the Fraser Valley. The CSF spokesperson said in an email: “We will continue to work in collaboration with the Ministry to announce new projects but there is still a lot of work to do and challenges to address.”

The government’s own press release suggests the strategy is but the first of a multi-step planning process.

“The capital strategy,” the province declared, “will explore establishing a capital project office dedicated to the CSF to support the development and delivery of capital projects in communities where new or improved francophone schools are needed.”

The provincial government is facing continually growing costs to upgrade and replace aging schools of all types across BC. The Current has reported that the total deferred maintenance costs on BC’s schools now exceeds $7 billion, and that the sum is growing each year. Auditors have repeatedly warned that figure will continue to grow without more spending on school maintenance and upgrades. (Read that story here.)

Perhaps to mitigate the huge projected CSF land costs, the province says it intends to look at how it can use land it or other public school boards already own to meet the CSF’s needs.

To do so, the province intends to amend the School Act to allow the province to incorporate CSF planning into its overall school project planning process. The province said it intends to create an inventory that it can use “to support efforts to meet the CSF’s capital needs over the long term.”

That could also have implications for non-French-language public school boards.

The province says the legislation will allow it to transfer land owned by English school boards to the CSF, though it said that will only take place after the province pursues other avenues to meet its obligations, “including but not limited to purchasing private land.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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