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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Leaky schools in B.C.
Who is responsible?

by Noel Herron

At the end of March 2005, my neighborhood school, False Creek Elementary, in Vancouver, will slowly emerge from the wrappings of the past six months. It is one of more than 500 schools across B.C. that the provincial government has investigated for water leaks. Contractors and architects face claims of up to $60 million to have them repaired. The province will pick up the tab for False Creek while seeking compensation from the builders and or architects it deems responsible for the mess.

Sadly, this is not the first time our neighbourhood school has faced large reconstruction since it was first built in 1977 because of the apparent combination of government policy changes, contractor ineptitude, and buck-passing by key players involved, and woefully deficient building codes for our climate. There appears to be no shortage of blame to go around, as exemplified by the Barrett report on the leaky condo syndrome.

The initial cost of False Creek Elementary was estimated at $3.5 million, and 17 years later, in the summer of 1994, a half-million-dollar repair job was called for, due to water seepage, bringing the cost to over $4 million.

Since September 2004, False Creek students, teachers, support staff, parents, and community organizations (despite careful planning by VSB staff) have endured the inconvenience. Scaffolding, hoardings, and wrappings were erected and under that protection, masons, structural workers, and other craftsmen repair the latest ravages of seeping water. The cost of this second repair job is now estimated at a cool $1,438,300 increasing the total cost of the school from the original $3.5 million to close to $5.5 million.

Who is responsible for the province-wide mess? Should the provincial government, the architects, and the contractors share in the cost recovery involved? Are architects being made the sole scapegoats for this situation? Why are schools that were built prior to 1985 not leaking? What kind of provincial building code permits this disaster? What will guarantee that we will not have a repeat of the False Creek problem across the province?

Are the repairs being co-ordinated with the ongoing seismic program to avoid additional costs? Why should some of our schools, as in the case of Walter Moberly Elementary School, in Vancouver, be faced with two separate upgrades—one for seismic and another for refurbishing with all the attendant inconvenience?

The Campbell government may wish to claim that it initiated the current 18-month cost recovery program by sending out notices to architects and builders. The previous NDP government may wish to claim that it built more schools than any previous provincial government (both claims are true). However, their combined failure to stop the rot once it became apparent is stunning.

The root of the problem can be traced to the Bennett government of the mid-1980s, which decided to implement the penny wise, pound foolish—some would say asinine—policy of squeezing the most amount of classroom space using the least amount of money. This apparently led to a decrease in the quality of construction, with cheaper materials such as face-sealed stucco on wood-frame buildings rather than the brick cavity walls previously in use. A face-seal system relies on sealants applied to the outside surface of wall joints.

Critics also point out that regardless of whether it is a wood or a concrete building, unless proper moisture-management measures are taken during the design and construction phases, moisture will be trapped behind cladding, and rot will inevitably set in. It seems to have escaped the bureaucrats in the Bennett government and succeeding provincial governments that we, on the West Coast, have the highest rainfall in Canada. And lowest-bid contracting, forced on school boards by Victoria, seems to have developed a system that allows contractors and subcontractors to walk away or hide behind the anonymity of numbered companies with impunity.

The results of this ill-advised policy switch and the construction methods used at the time are painfully evident in our schools today. A school district like Coquitlam has a whopping 30% of its 72 schools under investigation for upgrading. The gym roof of Surrey’s L.A. Matheson Junior Secondary School collapsed, and on Saltspring Island, the Saltspring Island Middle School’s roof leaked badly. Unanswered questions about the impact of unseen mould on the health of students and staff abound. (The services of the mould-sniffing dog Coco have been called into use by at least two school districts.) The disruption of school schedules and the teaching/learning environment because of noise and classroom displacements is also unacceptable.

Given the complexity of the issues, ranging from the health and safety of our students and staffs to the charges and counter charges of the key players that may lead to litigation, the independent investigative powers of the province’s Office of the Auditor General should be used to avoid a repeat of this province-wide debacle. And equally important, the auditor general should examine the potentially shocking use or misuse of our taxes.

But don’t hold your breath. The Campbell government has starved the auditor general’s office of the necessary funding to initiate a broadly based investigation that would enable it to get to the bottom of this scandal.

Are we now so immune to scandals in this province that this issue barely makes it above the public-awareness radar?

Noel Herron is a Vancouver trustee and is the liaison trustee for False Creek Elementary School.

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