Ministry of Education’s response to the Office of the Auditor General’s review of the Seismic Mitigation Program
There is nothing more important than the safety of British Columbia’s students. That’s why this government has committed $1.5 billion to make our schools safer in the event of an earthquake. This is the first-ever government to undertake a comprehensive school seismic upgrading program of this magnitude.
The Ministry of Education has taken a three-pronged approach to upgrading schools in seismic zones. The first is through the school seismic mitigation program and, to date, 80 seismic upgrade projects are complete, under construction or approved to proceed to construction. The second is an investment of $5 million per year to school districts in seismic-designated zones to complete “non-structural” seismic work. This includes attaching cabinets to walls, covering some windows with protective film and securing lights. Finally, each of the 73 new and replacement schools built since 2001 are modern, seismically-sound buildings.
In developing and implementing the school seismic mitigation program, the Ministry of Education worked with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (APEGBC) to create a comprehensive method to assess and prioritize school seismic mitigation needs. The ministry has also worked closely with boards of education to manage a total of 153 school capital projects over the last seven years – that is more than 20 projects each school year. We continue to work closely with boards of education to ensure seismic projects are identified, prioritized, and effectively implemented.
The original structural program budget, developed based on the seismic risk assessments carried out in 2004, included estimates of the direct cost of seismically upgrading school buildings at that time. The extraordinary cost inflation we have experienced across the province over the last four years could not have been anticipated. Significant price increases in the provincial construction market have had a considerable impact on the cost of the seismic mitigation program. The ministry monitors these market trends each quarter and works with the Ministry of Finance to confirm seismic mitigation program priorities within the existing budget envelope. With the current economic environment, it is important to consider that there may be deflationary effects such as lower commodity prices and lower interest rates that play a role in the cost of seismically upgrading schools.
The Auditor General recommends that the ministry and boards of education work together to ensure future seismic projects are integrated into a long-term capital planning framework. The ministry does, in fact, require boards of education to develop long-term facility plans. These plans identify capital requirements for school expansion and consolidation; school replacement or upgrades based on building condition, seismic vulnerability and ongoing maintenance/life cycle costs; as well as new government initiatives such as early learning and neighbourhood learning centres. The ministry is working with school districts to better integrate seismic upgrading into their existing and future long-term capital plans. These fully integrated capital plans will better enable school districts to effectively plan and implement priority seismic projects.
The Auditor General also recommends that the ministry consolidate its current risk management activities into a comprehensive risk management framework, including the monitoring of significant external risks. He acknowledges that the ministry’s capital planning and procurement process is designed in part to help manage internal risks and costs on all capital projects. The ministry monitors construction market trends and assesses the impact of those trends on specific capital projects and the broader capital program. Project and program level budget contingencies are maintained to address minor market fluctuations. Projects are managed and implemented according to priority ranking in order to address larger pressures which can arise from unanticipated spikes in the construction market. The ministry will continue to work with school districts to further improve its capital process and will seek out ways to better manage external project risks.
The planning and delivery of a seismic project is often complex due to a number of factors including relocating students and scheduling work around school hours. In an effort to identify the most efficient and expeditious delivery model, the ministry has piloted and reviewed a number of alternatives for improving the timeliness of seismic project delivery. The current delivery method is a co-managed approach, where the ministry provides funding and broad oversight for the school seismic mitigation program, while boards of education are responsible for the physical delivery of individual capital projects. The ministry now provides boards with additional funding to secure resources and expertise dedicated to advancing seismic capital projects. The ministry is working closely with several school districts to add project management capacity to expedite seismic project delivery. Vancouver and Coquitlam are just two examples of districts where we have added this extra support.
The ministry is working with boards of education to improve planning and reporting for non-structural seismic upgrading of schools. Working with the ministry, boards of education will continue to identify and prioritize non-structural upgrading requirements in schools. The ministry and boards will improve the process by determining an overall implementation plan, identifying funding requirements and tracking work completion. In this way, the ministry can carefully check progress against priorities, while monitoring costs and funding levels. As well, the ministry will consider incorporating this process into the capital asset management system currently under development.
The safety of British Columbia’s students is a priority for this government. The Province is working with education partners – school districts – to find the best way to move seismic upgrades more quickly while remaining thoughtful about the projects and fiscally prudent. The government recognizes that it is important to ensure parents, students, teachers and staff feel safe in B.C. schools.
The ministry will continue to communicate with education partners and the public about the seismic mitigation program and to explore ways to improve public engagement. The ministry will endeavour to build a better understanding of the complexities involved in large-scale construction projects and of the careful planning that is involved in each project. There are a number of opportunities for this discussion, including such venues as the education learning roundtable.
This government remains committed to the 15-year, seismic mitigation program – an unprecedented commitment in terms of its scope and size.
It is important to note that by the end of 2008-09, this government will have invested more than $3.1 billion in school capital and maintenance projects across British Columbia. This investment comes at a time when enrolment has declined by about 50,000 students.
The Ministry of Education appreciates the Auditor General providing an outside perspective on our school seismic mitigation plan. By acknowledging the strengths of the seismic mitigation program as well as suggesting further improvement, this report helps us to continue to make improvements and increase our effectiveness which will build overall public confidence in the safety of students.