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  • Tracy Sherlock

New VSB report considers consolidation and updates for old, seismically unsafe schools


This map in the Vancouver School Board's long-term facilities plan shows the capacity utilization of the city's elementary schools.


The latest phase of the long-running saga of the Vancouver School Board’s dilemma over how to get all students into schools that will be safe in an earthquake has begun.

District staff have prepared a long-range facilities plan that divides the city’s 116 schools into six zones, analyzing whether there is enough space in those schools and whether that space is seismically safe. News flash – although the provincial government of the day in March 2005 promised all schools in B.C. would be seismically upgraded by 2020, several years ago they extended that deadline to 2030. As of today, there are seismically safe places for just a little more than half of the district’s students and there are approvals for 16 more schools, which would boost that to 76 per cent of today’s student population. There are 45 schools, or nearly 40 per cent, that have not been approved for upgrades.

Vancouver schools have room for 57,989 students, but the district has only 48,404 students enrolled. The average age of VSB schools is 73 years and half of the schools are older than 70 years old. In the southeast corner of the city not a single one of the elementary schools is seismically safe, the new report says.

There’s pressure between the province, which is responsible for building schools, but doesn’t want to pay for more seats than students, and the district, which is faced with making the tough decisions of which schools to prioritize for upgrading and how to implement closures, if necessary.

New VSB board chair Carmen Cho, elected in December, is hopeful that the new education minister, Jennifer Whiteside, appointed in November, will make a difference.

“We are making sure we are developing that relationship. It is really important to us that we have a collaborative, open relationship with the ministry,” Cho said in an interview.

Last year, the Ministry of Education gave VSB new guidelines for school facility planning that allow for community uses, as opposed to closing a school, Cho said.

“It may not need to be that stark of a consideration. I think that’s helpful to the discussion,” Cho said.

Olympic Village needs a new school and schools downtown and in some areas of the city are bursting, while others, in more mature neighbourhoods have too much space. The Ministry of Education tends to pay for the “lowest cost option,” but VSB can contribute their own funds, if they have any, to build bigger and better schools.

Whiteside promised to work with the district to “support positive, long-term learning environments for VSB students.”

“Once approved, this plan will provide a more complete picture of how best to prioritize Vancouver school investments across the district,” Whiteside said in a statement. “I am committed to look for solutions that would include this cherished community institution welcoming children again and will assist in that process in any way I can.”

Allan Wong, long-time trustee and chair of the VSB facilities planning committee, said the facilities plan is dynamic and will be constantly updated.

“I think the province wants to help us fund areas with strong student population – the middle, downtown core. In order to really support that, I think we need that conversation with the ministry to say, what does it take to get Olympic Village school built? What does it take to get King George high school expanded and built?” Wong said in an interview.

The district’s land holdings are assessed at a whopping $7.6-billion, but it’s a case of being house-rich and cash-poor. The most obvious way to access that cash is to sell land, but trustees are wisely loath to sell off school lands that may be needed for future generations and instead often prefer long-term leases or the like, which can provide some cash over the long term, but not usually enough to build new schools.

The facilities plan presented by district staff, but not yet approved by trustees, only explicitly mentions the possible closure of one school – Carleton elementary – which was closed by a fire in 2016. Since then Carleton students have been attending another nearby elementary school. The plan suggests trustees could consider starting a closure process for Carleton, after looking for an alternate educational or community use for the site.

“In light of the damage from arson that occurred at Sir Guy Carelton in 2016, it’s important to see that the VSB is continuing to look for an education use for this site,” Whiteside said.

For the other schools and the six zones, the message is more subtle, and calls for various strategies like moving choice programs, such as French immersion, to zones where there is excess space, using excess space for office and meeting space for non-classroom use, and expanding the use of school space by child-care facilities and other community health or social services. It also considers the consolidation of schools and rebuilding smaller schools through the seismic upgrade process. All six zones are analyzed in detail in the plan, but from my read the schools most at risk of “consolidation” are Prince of Wales and Point Grey (full disclosure, I’m a PW grad) and any number of elementary and secondary schools in the city’s east side, which are not called out by name for consolidation, but which are shown to be in bad shape and with lots of excess space.

Closing schools in Vancouver (and anywhere!) is fraught with difficulty. In 2016, the last time VSB trustees came close to closing any schools, the entire board was fired after a heated public meeting and allegations of bullying of staff by trustees. There have been many similar processes in many other years, but very few schools have closed. Those that have closed, have generally been small annexes where parents saw the writing on the wall and decided to enrol in main schools instead, thereby closing a school by attrition.

Also complicating things, as it did in 2016, is the cross boundary issue. This report only considers enrolled students, but not whether they live in the neighbourhood or attend cross-boundary. Those numbers are available only in an appendix to the report.

These are tough decisions. It’s impossible to know what Vancouver will look like in 10 or 20 years. Will people still be working from home? Will that mean the hollowing out of downtown or will there be more condos than ever? The VSB is trying to plan for at least the next 10 years, if not longer. They want to make schools modern and safe, while being effective stewards of the district’s resources.

Both Cho and Wong are confident the plan is a step in the right direction.

“I feel confident in the process we undertook with our stakeholders to be transparent along the way, to receive feedback, to really listen in developing that vision. I’m very proud of the work that’s been put forward,” Cho said.

Trustees will vote on the plan on January 25.

Tracy.sherlock@gmail.com

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