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B.C.'s new education minister already diving into urgent priorities

Barely a day after he was named education minister, Rob Fleming is already racing against time.

Critics usually don’t become ministers of their portfolios, but in Fleming’s case — he has served as NDP education critic since 2013 — it could be an advantage.

“He’s going to be able to hit the ground running and that’s what we desperately need as we move towards September,” said B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman.

The most immediate need facing education is more funding, said advocates. 

“We are going to get to work on it right away,” Fleming said in an interview on Tuesday. “I think the main thing is to look at the Supreme Court implementation. Some districts are struggling. They haven’t been given much direction by the B.C. Liberals and it may be a case of insufficient resources. There’s a lot of things happening.”

The new minister said he’d already spoken to Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and would move quickly to reduce the start eliminating portables in that district as the NDP had promised in the election.

“I’ll be reaching out to all 60 school district chairs, they have projects in mind … so we want to get a quick start on those things,” he said.

The B.C. Liberals’ promise of a $360-million classroom enhancement fund to hire 2,600 new teachers is inadequate and has left some school districts which did not get the amounts they believe they need to implement the court decision, scrambling, said Hansman.

“It’s a bit of an emergency situation to make sure the proper amount of funding is there for September.” 

Equally important is a boost in the overall education budget after years of chronic underfunding which critics say has led to program cuts, the constant threat of school closures, and deteriorating classroom conditions. 

Other priorities include seismic upgrades and new school construction. 

During the campaign, the NDP pledged to accelerate seismic upgrades for schools. In the overcrowded Surrey school district, the NDP pledged to build new schools and get students out of portables within four years.

Cindy Dalgleish of Surrey Students Now welcomed Fleming’s appointment, calling it “well-deserved.”

“This is a huge win for education and for education in Surrey and any district feeling the pinch right now,” she said, stressing the need for more money from the government to be put into education.

One of the issues Fleming will have to tackle is the Vancouver school district, whose trustees were turfed in October by then-minister Mike Bernier and replaced with an appointed trustee. Horgan had said he wants a democratically elected board. Options include reinstating the previous board or holding a byelection.

Mike Lombardi, chair of the Vancouver board when trustees fired last fall, lauded Fleming’s abilities and his good relationship with teachers, trustees, and other stakeholders.

“He’s someone who really pays attentions and knows the issues,” said Lombardi. “Every time I’ve dealt with him, he’s on top of the issues.”