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Agassiz and Harrison's aging schools are old and seismically unstable, but locals don't expect them to be replaced soon

Agassiz Elementary Secondary School is 71 years old and Harrison Hot Springs Elementary is even older

Agassiz Elementary Secondary School is more than 70 years old, and unlikely to be seismically upgraded any time soon. đź“· Grace Kennedy

This story first appeared in the July 3, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

Two aging Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs schools are at high risk of serious damage or collapse in the event of a major earthquake, but local school administrators don’t expect the buildings will be replaced anytime soon.

Agassiz Elementary-Secondary School is 71 years old and Harrison Hot Springs Elementary is even older, having been constructed in a matter of months in 1949.

Two years later, a second room was added to Harrison’s school, leading the Chilliwack Progress to declare that the village would “be able to boast one of the most modern two-room schools in the Fraser Valley.” The paper noted that the school had a fire alarm system, teachers office, and cold and hot water heating system.

Both are now showing their age, despite years of patchwork additions. (Harrison’s school now has five rooms, plus two portable classrooms.)

The two elderly schools have previously been identified as being at high risk in the event of an earthquake, and for the last five years the Fraser-Cascade School District have identified replacements for the schools—or seismic retrofitting—in its annual capital plan to be submitted to the province.

That’s still the case, even though administrators aren’t optimistic about the immediate prospects for replacement.

Replacing the Agassiz and Harrison schools “has been on our list for the last five years,” Doug Templeton, the district’s director of facilities and transportation, told trustees this spring. But Templeton warned that the province might have other priorities.

“I suspect it’s not a high priority for the ministry, with some higher risk schools on the coast or on Vancouver Island, but they are identified as high risk so we need to keep them on our list for remediation.”

Indeed, the province’s Seismic Mitigation Program has been underway for years and still lists hundreds of high-risk schools that need to be replaced or retrofitted to protect students in case of a major earthquake. Although 225 projects had been completed, and 28 were in process as of May, 245 have yet to be started.

In addition to the Harrison and Agassiz sites, those include two schools in Abbotsford, and six in Langley. (The completed projects include five Chilliwack schools, seven Abbotsford schools, and seven Langley schools; Mission Secondary School is the only local high-risk school in progress. You can find a list of what schools have been upgraded and which still need replacement or retrofitting here.)

Among the nearly 500 high-risk schools, Agassiz and Harrison’s are located the furthest from the Pacific Ocean and its dangerous undersea faults. But the two schools’ ages and location on low-lying floodplains would significantly add to the impacts of an earthquake. (The floodplain both comes with a risk of liquefaction and also preserves the energy of an earthquake wave more than bedrock.)

The age of the schools also means both are more likely to get replaced before they are renovated and retrofitted.

“We said some of these schools are getting older so we should look at replacement rather than seismic [upgrades],” Templeton said.

Ministry calculations found that seismically retrofitting and partially replacing the hastily built school in Harrison would cost $21 million. Fully rebuilding the school and adding classrooms to replace the current portables would cost only $8 million more.

The larger Agassiz school is expected to actually cost less to seismically retrofit—around $18.8 million. And replacing it would cost much more—an estimated $75 million.

But the province seems more keen on that project. Districts are asked to rank their requests and Templeton said the Ministry of Education had suggested that it move the replacement of the Agassiz school above the smaller Harrison Hot Springs elementary school.

Although Templeton suggested that other schools might seem to need seismic upgrades more quickly than those in Agassiz and Harrison, that’s not the only factor driving school-building projects in BC. The province has been rolling out new projects ahead of the coming election, and many are touted for their importance in addressing surges in enrolment and population across the Lower Mainland.

Agassiz and Harrison have each grown significantly in recent years, and enrolment at both Harrison Elementary and Agassiz Elementary-Secondary has grown by nearly 20% since 2017.

The Fraser-Cascade district has also told the province that it may need money to buy a site for a new Agassiz elementary school in the years to come. And with Harrison’s five-room, two-portable schoolhouse showing its age—and with the NDP MLAs of both communities trying to retain their seat—if the two communities are to finally get new schools, this might be the year.

This story first appeared in the July 3, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

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