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A spokesperson for the Education Ministry said that schools are specifically excluded from federal infrastructure programs.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The federal government should spend some of its infrastructure billions on seismic upgrades for public schools in British Columbia, says a coalition of parent groups in the province, arguing that the upgrades are too important to tie to a provincial education budget in which they would compete with a long list of priorities.

"The structural and seismic safety of public school buildings should not be linked to the education budget," says the coalition's Oct. 20 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

"An injection of federal funding for 'shovel ready' projects will have multiple benefits," the letter continues. "It will enable projects that are fully planned but have been waiting for years for Treasury Board funding approval to finally get started; it will assist schools that have not even begun the process yet to finally see light at the end of a long tunnel; and it will take some of the funding pressure off of the provincial government, thus enabling it to devote adequate funding to school districts' operational budgets."

A spokesman for the Education Ministry said the ministry's understanding is that schools are specifically excluded from federal infrastructure programs.

But Infrastructure Canada said it had received the letter "asking the Government of Canada to direct infrastructure funding towards urgently needed seismic upgrades in B.C.'s public schools" and that the government is working with provincial governments and other stakeholders to "develop the next phase of the infrastructure plan."

The federal government has promised to spend $60-billion in new funds on infrastructure over 10 years. Some of that has already been spent, but talks are under way for a second phase that would allocate the remaining $48-billion.

The request for federal funding, signed by seven advocacy groups including the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, comes amid rising frustration over the pace of seismic upgrades, in which buildings are made safer by, for example, strengthening load-bearing walls so they are less likely to collapse in an earthquake.

In 2004, then-premier Gordon Campbell announced the $1.5-billion Seismic Mitigation Program to upgrade more than 700 schools by 2020.

But the upgrades turned out to be more expensive than expected. In 2008, a B.C. Auditor-General's report concluded the original budget would not be enough to remediate all the schools in the plan.

Since then, the upgrades have continued, but the 2020 deadline is expected to be missed by a decade or more. There are a total of 342 schools in the program. To date, the province has spent about $1.2-billion on 155 projects.

Another $560-million has been allocated for seismic work over the next three years, but another 118 schools deemed high-risk under a provincial rating scale have yet to be addressed.

The upgrades have become a source of tension between school districts and the provincial government, with the province trying to ensure it spends money on schools that are at or near capacity and districts feeling pressure to squeeze more students into fewer schools in order to ensure seismic upgrades go ahead.

Until recently, both Vancouver and Richmond were looking at closing schools.

Those closings are now on hold after a September announcement by the province that it was getting rid of capacity-utilization targets.

Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, has introduced several motions for the federal government to help fund seismic upgrades, most recently in September. To date, those motions have fallen on deaf ears, he said.

"I think it is an ideal target for federal funding for infrastructure," Mr. Davies said. "I would challenge anybody to make a better case [for funding] than making sure our children are in safe buildings in seismic zones."

Letter to prime minister about B.C. schools by The Globe and Mail on Scribd

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