De Jong hints at new Abbotsford school funding

Finance Minister suggests announcement regarding funding to ease crowding in west Abbotsford schools.

Finance Minister and Abbotsford West MLA Michael de Jong

Finance Minister and Abbotsford West MLA Michael de Jong

Relief may be on the way for students and teachers in eastern Abbotsford’s crowded schools.

In an interview following the release of Tuesday’s provincial budget, Finance Minister Mike de Jong told The News the province would “try to address” a space crunch caused by increasing enrolment and continued development on Sumas Mountain.

Of the $13.7 billion in capital spending the budget allocates over three years, $2 billion will go to the province’s schools. The province has already made several funding announcements across B.C. this year, and de Jong – who is also the MLA for Abbotsford West – said he was “optimistic” that money would soon be coming for Abbotsford’s schools.

The local school district has designated a new elementary school on Eagle Mountain as its top priority.

The three elementary schools in the Eagle Mountain area – McMillan, Mountain and Prince Charles – currently utilize 104.5 per cent of their operating capacity. That figure is projected to increase to 120 per cent by the year 2020 and 157 per cent by 2028. The area needs 306 more kindergarten-to-Grade 5 spots, according to a report.

The district already owns land in the area and has projected a $13.9 million cost, contingent on provincial funding, which had been requested.

De Jong wasn’t specific about what new funding may be on the way, and Abbotsford board of education chair Shirley Wilson said the board hadn’t received any promises from the province.

But she said that if the province were to finance a new Eagle Mountain school “that would be outstanding news.”

She added: “It would be a very significant capital acquisition for the board.”

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The budget saw the province cut MSP premiums in half and increase spending in a number of areas, including education and mental health support.

The latter increase – $140 million – is focused in large part on increasing supports for young people. The money follows a damning report into the suicide of Abbotsford teen Alex Gervais. A report from the province’s child advocate earlier this month revealed that Gervais had suffered years of instability and neglect, and a contracted caregiver had failed to pass along the fact that his young charge was suicidal prior to his death.

Funding for children with mental health issues had previously lagged behind the increasing number of children needing help.

But the budget has drawn criticism for not increasing welfare rates in the face of rising living costs.

De Jong said the budget does provide an increase to those on disability, but said that the province preferred to increase programs and supports for those on welfare, rather than to increase rates.

“There’s work out there, and we want to make sure people have the training, the education and the skills to get into the workforce.”

Asked about those who are homeless and can’t afford a place to live on social assistance, De Jong said: “Everyone needs a safe place to live and they need support to ensure they have enough to eat. I’m not pretending it’s easy for a single employable person who’s relying on social assistance. But that’s why we provide other supports that are designed to facilitate their entering the workforce as quickly as possible.”

The News also asked de Jong about future investments in affordable housing in light of a letter from the CEO of Fraser Health last November suggesting the region didn’t have its fair share of supportive housing units.

De Jong said the province has invested $900 million into affordable-housing projects. He pointed to the 30-unit Gladys Avenue supportive-housing facility slated to open soon and several other facilities as examples that Abbotsford had received its share.

“There’s always more that can be done and needs to be done, and there (are) additional resources in the budget, but Abbotsford certainly has not been overlooked in this area.”

– with files from Kelvin Gawley, Tom Fletcher and Katya Slepian