Funding school playgrounds in B.C. is a tricky game
Nestled on the edge of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, the school playground fits nicely with its natural surroundings. Made mostly of wood, it blends well with the forest.
Although no injuries due to equipment malfunction have been reported, workers have started tearing down the playground of Queen Elizabeth Annex. The situation at this West Side Vancouver school isn’t unique.
Between 2012 and 2020, schools across the city will see at least 100 wooden and metal structures removed from their playgrounds for safety reasons. Queen Elizabeth Annex, which serves kindergarten to Grade 2 students, tops the list, with 11 structures to be demolished by the summer.
Parents like Colleen Reid would have been happy that new and better gear is being put in, except that they have to raise the money to pay for it. They also have to pay the school district for the installation, an amount equal to the cost of the equipment, according to Reid, who is co-chair of Queen Elizabeth Annex’s parent advisory council.
“I think to some degree the assumption is that West Side schools can do this—can raise the money and replace their playgrounds with relative ease,” Reid told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “In fact, that’s not the case in our particular case because we’re such a small school.”
New swings and monkey bars have cost parents at Queen Elizabeth Annex about $15,000 for equipment and installation.
“What’s going to happen now is that by June or July, when the rest of the equipment comes out [is removed], we have no money,” Reid said. “So we’re not going to have any other equipment. We’ve only got the two pieces. It will probably take us at least two or three years to raise another $15,000.”
Vision Vancouver school trustee Rob Wynen pointed out that although the province announced in 2011 that it would spend $8 million over two years on school playgrounds across B.C., there is no fixed mechanism for determining what gets funded.
“What will happen is we will put forward a request to the province for monies, but the province doesn’t have any allocation scheme right now,” Wynen told the Straight in a phone interview. “So we’ll put in ‘Here, this is a replacement,’ and next year they’ll say ‘You’ll get none,’ or next year they could say ‘This is how much money we’ll give you,’ or next year they can say ‘We’re only going to refund the parent advisory committee.’ Or what they did two years ago is they had a lottery system. That’s what the frustration is—there’s no set funding formula for playgrounds. It makes it very difficult for our staff, because they could not do any long-term planning.”
According to the first-term trustee, this leads to a two-tier system.
“Parent advisory committees that can raise money are at an advantage,” Wynen said. “But a lot of other parent advisory committees—let’s say they’re in East Side neighbourhoods where parents aren’t rich or don’t have much time, or let’s say it’s a very small school like the Queen Elizabeth Annex, where there aren’t a lot of students and parents—they have a very tough time raising money.…So it really creates a have and have-not scheme for schools as far as playgrounds go.”
Schools across the province that have no playgrounds are the top priority for the $8-million fund allotted by B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark in September 2011. The next is reimbursement of parent councils that have raised money and bought district-identified playground equipment. The last is schools identified by the district as having either minimal playground equipment or equipment that needs to be upgraded or replaced.
According to Reid, Queen Elizabeth Annex won’t be getting any money from this fund.
At the annual general meeting of the B.C. School Trustees Association on April 28, the organization approved a motion put forward by Wynen stating that the group will ask the Ministry of Education to provide more funding for playgrounds. The motion specifies that priority should be given to facilities whose playgrounds have been or will be closed for safety reasons.
BCSTA board member Melissa Hyndes noted there is no line item for playgrounds in the Ministry of Education’s annual budget. According to the chair of School District No. 43—which covers Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore, Ioco, and Belcarra—schools have traditionally maintained these facilities themselves but replacements are very costly.
“The BCSTA motion is that [playground funding] to become a regular amount of money,” Hyndes told the Straight by phone.
The Education Ministry didn't make a spokesperson available for an interview before deadline.