The B.C. government has dropped capacity utilization targets from the process it uses to determine when to build new schools or fix ones already in use, saying the target was resulting in confusion and is unnecessary as school projects are approved on a case-by-case basis.
The targets had been in place across the province and varied according to student population, but had become especially contentious in Vancouver. In 2014, the Vancouver School Board reluctantly agreed to work toward a district-wide capacity utilization rate of 95 per cent as part of an agreement to speed up seismic upgrading for the district's schools. That deal forced the school board to look at closing schools to meet the target and triggered worries about how the target could affect non-classroom spaces such as libraries or computer labs.
In announcing the change, Education Minister Michael Bernier acknowledged the 95-per-cent target prompted widespread concerns.
"There has been a lot of confusion when we talk about utilization rates in our schools," Mr. Bernier said Wednesday at a news conference.
"Specifically, I look at Richmond, I look at Burnaby and other areas – who feel that they need to have utilization rates of 95 per cent before we do seismic upgrades. Today, I want to clarify that is absolutely false," he said.
The province had already been taking a flexible approach to capacity utilization targets and scrapping the measure reinforces that approach, he said.
The Liberal government committed more than a decade ago to a provincewide seismic upgrading of schools.
The Vancouver School Board is currently in the midst of a process that named a dozen schools for potential closing. One of those schools, Britannia Secondary School, was recently taken off the list.
The government expects the Vancouver board to continue that process, Mr. Bernier said.
"This is not saying the school district is off the hook, that they do not have to continue following through with their long-range facilities plan," Mr. Bernier said. "In fact, what today means is that they have more work in front of them."
Until the change, targets were set at 95 per cent for large urban school districts with more than 7,500 students; 85 per cent for districts with between 5,000 and 7,500 students and 80 per cent for districts with a population of between 1,500 and 4,999, a ministry spokesman said. There was no set target for districts with fewer than 1,500 students.
Those measures will no longer be in place.
The government's decision to scrap the targets reflects efforts by teachers, parents and trustees who campaigned against the measure, said NDP education critic Rob Fleming.
"On the surface, this appears to be a significant climbdown by government – and if it is, the credit goes to parents and communities who have stood up and fought against this government for trying to close schools in their communities," he said.
The government wants to work with districts to ensure seismic upgrades are completed as quickly as possible, but school districts will still need to justify their applications to build new schools or expand existing ones, Mr. Bernier said.