The Vancouver school board may sell a portion of J. W. Sexsmith Elementary School for residential and commercial development. But board of education chair Patti Bacchus says this doesn’t mean that the school district is about to go on a land-selling spree.
Bacchus made that assurance as trustees were scheduled to vote on December 12 on a policy regarding the disposition of VSB properties.
“For the most part, the philosophy of the board is we should hang on to that land,” Bacchus told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “It’s public land, and it should stay in public hands.”
The policy drafted by staff for board approval at the December 12 afternoon meeting spells out the procedure for disposing of lands through either a lease of more than 10 years or an outright sale.
“Next to the park board, we probably are the largest landowners in the city of public lands,” Bacchus noted.
According to her, the district has 109 operating school sites. Some of these have more than one building on them. By Bacchus’s count, there are over 200 school buildings in the city.
In addition to these, two sites are leased to independent schools, one Jewish and one Sikh. The district also owns the land occupied by Kingsgate Mall on the southeast corner of Kingsway and East Broadway. The school board has a workshop and a plant nursery in two other locations in the city.
In the case of J. W. Sexsmith Elementary, the board is building a new school at the western end of the 2.6-hectare South Vancouver property. Students will move to the facility next school year, vacating two old and seismically unsafe buildings with heritage value.
The new school will have 40 full-day kindergarten spaces and 350 spaces for students in grades 1 to 7. The existing 1912 and 1913 buildings will become surplus properties.
In 2007, Commonwealth Historic Resource Management Limited prepared a statement of significance about the school.
“Sexsmith School has heritage value for its architecture and its history, especially its association with the rapid growth of South Vancouver and the active role that the community has played,” the statement reads in part. “Incorporated in 1891, the rural Municipality of South Vancouver began to urbanize around 1910. In 1909-14, the school population of South Vancouver more than tripled. Twelve new schools with 128 classrooms were built during the period. One was Sexsmith. The site has added value because its first two schools survive[d] intact.”
Bacchus said the board is willing to consider alternative uses for the buildings if someone comes up with a proposal that would conserve their heritage component.
“That may include a long-term lease or even possibly a sale; we haven’t ruled that out,” she said. “So we would require this policy in order to proceed with anything like that.”
According to information provided by the board at an October 10, 2012, open house on the future of the school, the district may sell up to a hectare of the property.
Education trustee Ken Denike recalled that the board had earlier made a request for proposals for alternative community uses of the two buildings. However, he noted that the district didn’t receive any viable suggestions.
Denike indicated that once the board approves its policy on the disposition of school properties, it will make another request for proposals that will include community as well as residential and commercial uses.
“It’s just cleaner if we do the policy first,” Denike told the Straight in a phone interview. “It’s a matter of staging things.”
However, Denike noted that it won’t be the first time the board has sold assets.
He recalled that a portion of Queen Mary elementary school was sold for the development of private homes on the city’s West Side many years ago.
According to the draft policy, the board should consider a number of things in deciding whether or not to sell its real property, such as future enrollment growth and alternative community uses.