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Calls for more funding for early learning program in Surrey, B.C.

The Surrey School District says it may have to cut its StrongStart program amid a funding crunch. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Surrey School District says it may have to cut its StrongStart program amid a funding crunch. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Parents and school board trustees in Surrey, B.C., are calling on the province to provide more funding to an early learning program that supports vulnerable children.

StrongStart is a free drop-in program that provides children five years old and younger with storytime and play activities, and offers parents with additional school resources. The program serves just under 3,200 children across 25 schools in Surrey.

According to the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC), the free program has become "a social safety net for our most vulnerable learners," and helps serve as a first point of contact for many families sending children to school.

B.C.'s Ministry of Education says the program began as a pilot in 2006 and has since grown to 59 school districts with the province providing more than $10 million in funding.

The Surrey School District says program costs have ballooned in recent years, and provincial funding has been frozen since 2008.

School board trustees and the DPAC say the province needs to provide more funding for the program, given a massive surge in school enrolment in B.C.'s second-most populous city.

"This is not a matter of not having the right priorities, but it's a problem of our district being chronically underfunded," said Anne Whitmore, acting president of the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council.

"We have reached out to the [education] ministry to say, 'This is really important. Your own mandate says that early years' development is important and crucial for children's learning, so please fully fund this program.'"

Anne Whitmore, acting president of the Surrey District Parent Advisory Council, said that the B.C. government was neglecting young learners at a time when they need a strong foundation for their future.
Anne Whitmore, acting president of the Surrey District Parent Advisory Council, said that the B.C. government was neglecting young learners at a time when they need a strong foundation for their future.

Anne Whitmore, acting president of the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council, said that the B.C. government was neglecting young learners. (Sohrab Sandhu/CBC)

Ritinder Matthew, a spokesperson for the school district, said it recognized the importance of the program from the perspective of equity and that it provided "invaluable" support for families at no cost.

"Without an increase in provincial funding, we may be compelled to implement significant changes effective September 2024," Matthew wrote. "Sadly, this could involve the closure of StrongStart sites currently operating in our district."

Ritinder Matthew, a spokesperson for the Surrey School District, said the district would have to make tough choices on the future of StrongStart amid a funding shortfall.
Ritinder Matthew, a spokesperson for the Surrey School District, said the district would have to make tough choices on the future of StrongStart amid a funding shortfall.

Ritinder Matthew, a spokesperson for the Surrey School District, said the district would have to make tough choices on the future of StrongStart amid a funding shortfall. (CBC)

News of the program's peril came Wednesday during a Surrey Board of Education meeting. Assistant superintendent Christy Northway presented the financial position of the ministry-funded program, noting it has reached a tipping point in the midst of a second straight year in deficit.

"We recognize that operating StrongStart in its current form is no longer sustainable in Surrey," Northway said.

It came as a shock to Tammy Murphy, the president of CUPE 728, which represents school district support staff who are primarily responsible for StrongStart programs.

"It's been a program that's been around for almost 20 years, and we have a lot of high seniority staff that have been dedicating their time," Murphy said. "It is shocking, especially in this time when everybody needs job security, right?"

At Wednesday's Surrey Board of Education meeting, trustees expressed anger over the 16-year funding freeze for the program.

"It's absolutely disgusting that we get to the point where we're expected to rob Peter to pay Paul," said trustee Terry Allen. "Every one of these programs [is] critical to the education of children."

The board voted to send a letter to B.C. Minister of Education Rachna Singh to explain the need for more funding and request an in-person meeting about the issue.

Matthew said the district is planning to meet with the education minister after spring break.

B.C. Education and Child Care Minister Rachna Singh is seen during a news conference in the Hall of Honour at the legislature in Victoria on May 2, 2022.
B.C. Education and Child Care Minister Rachna Singh is seen during a news conference in the Hall of Honour at the legislature in Victoria on May 2, 2022.

The Surrey School District has written to B.C. Education Minister Rachna Singh about the future of StrongStart. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Province working with district ahead of budget

In a statement, a spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Education did not directly say if the ministry would provide more funds for the StrongStart program, but said it had committed over $1 billion in grants to Surrey schools since 2017.

"The ministry will be meeting with the Surrey School District to understand their budget situation as they continue their work to align their budget to their strategic plan," the spokesperson wrote.

The school district's trustees heard the StrongStart program had been operating with a $125,000 deficit in the 2022-23 budget, with a projected $160,000 deficit this school year.

Matthew said the district was unable to use operating funds to run the StrongStart funding, given they needed to pay for school portables.

"District operating funds are intended for the day-to-day operations of the district, including staff salaries and benefits, services, utilities and supplies," the district spokesperson wrote. "Operating funds are calculated by the ministry based on the number of K-12 students in a district – not StrongStart students."

Portable classrooms are pictured near Goldstone Park Elementary School in Surrey, British Columbia on Tuesday, August 15, 2023.
Portable classrooms are pictured near Goldstone Park Elementary School in Surrey, British Columbia on Tuesday, August 15, 2023.

The Surrey School District says it is spending a large portion of its operating funds to pay for portable classrooms, amid a huge spike in school enrolment. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The education ministry spokesperson said it recognized that Surrey was seeing a surge in enrolment numbers, and it was working with the district to build more classrooms.

"While the ministry remains supportive of Surrey continuing their StrongStart B.C. programs, with the benefits this program brings to school communities, it will ultimately be up to the board to make a final decision on its budget after consulting with, and hearing feedback from, their local community," the education ministry spokesperson said.