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British Columbia Seismic upgrades for Vancouver schools on shaky ground

Retrofitting old schools has proved challenging. Poor soil conditions at Kitsilano Secondary School have added $200,000 in costs.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

An office set up to streamline seismic upgrades of Vancouver schools has struggled to keep projects on track, according to reports submitted to B.C.'s Ministry of Education.

And when projects are finally approved, they can turn out to be more complex – and costly – than expected, with challenges such as hazardous material and unstable soil conditions coming to light once construction is under way.

"The Vancouver Project Office has been challenged in meeting timelines and receiving government approval for projects as identified in the implementation plan noted above," says a "decision paper" dated Dec. 8, 2015 and recently released through a freedom-of-information request.

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"The VPO is currently still waiting for project agreements for two [school] projects that were presented and approved by [a VPO steering committee] in early 2015," the document adds, referring to the group's steering committee.

In another update – dated May 11, 2016, and related to Jamieson Elementary – the Vancouver Project Office said the "steering committee supported the project to move forward but asked for an accelerated schedule," adding: "the greatest uncertainty within the schedule related to the lengthy approval process."

The Vancouver Project Office was set up in 2014 through an agreement between the province and the Vancouver School Board and was supposed to accelerate work to make the city's aging schools safer in the event an earthquake strikes. That process is part of a province-wide program – announced by former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell in 2004 – to upgrade schools around the province by 2020.

But the timeline has slipped in recent years; ministry plans now call for Vancouver upgrades to be complete by 2030 and those in the rest of the province by 2025.

The New Democrats – who are preparing to take power later this month after defeating the Liberal government in a confidence vote – have promised to "accelerate the seismic upgrade program" for schools, without specifying a completion date.

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Critics of the outgoing Liberal government, including the NDP, parent groups and some former Vancouver School Board trustees, have accused the province of taking too long to do the work.

The seismic upgrades became a sticking point in a long dispute between the school board and the government that ended last fall when Liberal education minister Mike Bernier fired all nine elected Vancouver School Board trustees, citing the board's failure to pass a balanced budget.

The NDP has also committed to holding a by-election to replace the school board trustees.

Progress reports filed by the Vancouver Project Office detail the challenges that come in retrofitting older buildings.

In one report related to Kitsilano Secondary, an initial $625,000 claim for "extra hazmat abatement" was reduced to $400,000 following detailed examinations at the site.

But those cost savings were quickly offset, as "unforeseen poor soil conditions were discovered below the existing heritage building have a cost magnitude of approximately $200,000 to date," the report says.

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An update on Queen Mary Elementary noted the discovery of "hazardous materials in buried concrete tunnel" as well as "unforeseen poor soil conditions" under a building set to be demolished as part of the project.

The Kitsilano Secondary project is under construction while the Queen Mary Elementary project was completed this past February.

An April, 2017 update from the province said 164 schools – nearly half of the 346 schools in the program – have been completed to date, at a cost of more than $1.5-billion.

Another 64 are at various stages in the mitigation process.

And another 118 schools – mostly in the Lower Mainland – have yet to be addressed.

Vancouver Project Office FOI by The Globe and Mail on Scribd

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