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B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, pictured in 2014, says the Liberal government used 'made-up' enrolment targets to delay seismic upgrades in the province's schools

The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has dragged its feet on seismic upgrades for the province's schools for political reasons, say the opposition New Democrats, citing postponed upgrades for two schools.

The NDP alleges the Liberal government used "made-up" enrolment targets – requiring school boards to ensure their facilities were 95-per-cent full – to rationalize those decisions.

"We now know … that 95-per-cent rule never existed," NDP Leader John Horgan told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday.

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"It was made up, it was a fabrication, to defer [seismic upgrading] for these schools," he added.

The B.C. government launched a province-wide seismic mitigation program in 2004, with an initial completion date of 2020, to earthquake-proof hundreds of schools.

But the process has taken longer and cost more than initially expected, leaving thousands of children in schools deemed at high risk of damage if an earthquake strikes.

Citing documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Mr. Horgan said the Liberals told school districts that seismic upgrades for two schools – Shoreline Middle School in Victoria and Minnekhada Middle School in Port Coquitlam – were delayed because of low enrolment.

Mr. Horgan also suggested politics could be a factor, noting that both Port Coquitlam and Shoreline's Victoria neighbourhood have been "heavily supportive" of the NDP.

"And yet they are now bumped off the list – even though they are high priorities for the [school] districts and they are characterized as H1, the most serious in need of seismic upgrading," Mr. Horgan said.

The government has repeatedly insisted that the 95-per-cent target – which was recently eliminated – was never a requirement for seismic upgrades, though Education Minister Mike Bernier acknowledged that the province expects school districts to consider capacity when seeking money for seismic work. And a government e-mail released in the NDP's package of documents notes "there are no capacity targets for seismic upgrades" and that a district-wide 95-per-cent threshold "applies only when looking for new new schools or expansions" – not for seismic upgrades.

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In districts where multiple schools require upgrading, Mr. Bernier said "it only makes sense to work on the highest-risk, highest-capacity schools first – and go from there."

Mr. Bernier also rejected the NDP's claim that seismic projects depend on party ties, arguing instead that the delays reflect a complex process involving hundreds of schools, millions of dollars and shifting enrolment projections.

He said the government has announced multimillion-dollar upgrades for schools in Mr. Horgan's riding and others held by NDP MLAs, including in Vancouver.

"When we are making decisions in the Ministry of Education, it's based on needs – it has nothing to do with the changes of who might or might not be in government," Mr. Bernier said.

Shoreline Middle School is in the Esquimalt-Royal Roads electoral district, held by NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis. Minnekhada Middle School is in the Port Coquitlam electoral district, held by NDP MLA Mike Farnworth.

Following months of debate over the district-wide targets, Mr. Bernier in September announced they would be scrapped, saying they had become a source of confusion and did not reflect the province's case-by-case approach to spending money on school projects.

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The 95-per-cent target had been a target in Vancouver, as part of a 2014 deal between the province and the district in which the Vancouver School Board agreed to work toward that threshold in exchange for getting seismic upgrades under way.

But while the district-wide targets may not have been a requirement for seismic upgrades – other than in Vancouver – they were part of the conversation.

The Richmond School District, for example, last year launched a public consultation process that flagged 16 schools for potential closure. It later narrowed that list to three elementary schools. In a September, 2016, report, the district's superintendent noted, "the Ministry of Education requires districts to apply for funding for both seismic mitigation and the building of new spaces" and that "the capital planning instructions published in June, 2016, outline a 95-per-cent utilization efficiency as a benchmark for Ministry funding."

Richmond put its school closure process on hold this month after the province scrapped utilization targets. Similarly, the Vancouver School Board – which had launched a process to close up to 11 schools – cancelled that process in October.

There are 342 schools currently in the seismic upgrade program. In a September update, the province said it has completed 155 projects to date for $1.5-billion and another 69 are in progress. Another 118 schools have yet to be addressed.

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