Vancouver school trustees have heard an earful from East Side parents and community leaders who want to keep Sir Guy Carleton elementary school open.
More than 400 people, including several children, attended a public meeting last night (October 25) at the Windermere secondary school gymnasium. At times, the crowd erupted in chants of "Save our school" when they approved of a speaker's comments.
It was the first of 10 consultation meetings that the Vancouver board of education is holding over the next two weeks over the possible closure of five East Side schools.
The first speaker was Ann Wong, who chairs Carleton's parent advisory committee. She said that uncertainty over the school's future was taking a toll on nearly 400 kids who attend Carleton.
"Children should only worry about how to solve a math problem or spell a word correctly or any other academically inclined matter—not a political one of their school closing," Wong stated.
She added that she recognizes trustees were "between a rock and a hard place". But she urged the board to bring more programs to the 114-year-old school, some of which could be an extension of Collingwood Neighbourhood House.
As an example, she cited an arrangement with Green Thumb Theatre to use the original building, which was damaged by a fire a couple of years ago. But she claimed that some parents believe that the school's closure is a "done deal, and these public meetings are just going through the motions".
"At Carleton, our motto is: 'We care about our ourselves. We care about each other. And we care about this place'," Wong declared to loud applause.
Carleton, at 3250 Kingsway, has 376 students this year, according to a board of education report, and 137 "surplus spaces". There are 952 surplus spaces at six other elementary schools in that part of the city.
Closing the school would save $468,120 in annual operating costs, according to the board of education. The report states that there is "considerable redevelopment potential" for the site, which has an assessed value of $22 million.
Closing all five schools on the board of education's list—including Champlain Heights Annex, Macdonald elementary, McBride Annex, and Queen Alexandria elementary—would save approximately $1.5 million per year in operating costs. School superintendent Steve Cardwell told the audience that the board anticipates a $9.6-million funding shortfall next year, and a $5.7-million shortfall the following year.
Julie Linkletter, president of the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, told trustees that closing Carleton school would "fundamentally change the character of this wonderful, vibrant community".
"Carleton school is involved in so many partnerships within this community and with other community organizations and other schools," she said. "Losing Carleton would be the loss of a vitally key partner to these organizations, such as my Collingwood Neighbourhood House."
She suggested that the board of education should partner with immigration-support groups to provide services within the school.
"This would not only help immigrants with their settlement needs, but it would also help strengthen the home-school bond, which would provide an even greater educational benefit to the children and families at Carleton," Linkletter stated.
Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MLA Adrian Dix questioned data that the board of education has presented to parents. He noted that the largest elementary school in B.C. that has closed in the last decade had only 320 students, whereas there are 380 kids enrolled at Carleton.
He pointed out there there are only 254 students listed in Carleton's catchment area, and claimed that this didn't reflect reality. He noted that 113 students, most of them living south of Euclid Avenue, are in the Graham D. Bruce elementary catchment area, but they attend Carleton.
Dix added that another 38 students, also mostly south of Euclid Avenue, are listed in the Sir Wilfrid Grenfell catchment, even though they go to Carleton.
"What we have are specific concerns that we will be detailing in our brief next week about the issues of catchment areas, about the issues of capacity of schools—of the neighbouring schools," Dix said.
He declared that 7,000 to 8,000 people have signed petitions to keep the school open. He added that every parent advisory committee at neighbouring schools supports keeping Carleton open, as do the local neighbourhood house and the Collingwood Business Improvement Association.
In addition, Dix highlighted the board's claim that were no new major multi-unit housing developments planned near Carleton. He held up a letter from developer Bruno Wall, who plans to build 800 residential homes at the corner of Kingsway and Boundary Road in the Graham D. Bruce catchment. Dix emphasized that the majority of children in the neighbourhood actually attend Carleton.
"Eight hundred new units—it is not considered in the report," Dix said. "We will be sharing that information with the board."
The NDP MLA also suggested that the board of education lowballed its estimated price tag—$26,000—to board up Carleton.
"It would cost a lot more than that," he said. "The board really is faced with a choice: children can go back to school next September, to an extraordinary school with extraordinary teachers in the school, and a great parent community. Or we can board it up and take the heart of our neighbourhood. We ask the school board—because we are standing with you on funding issues with the provincial government—that you stand with us, and save Carleton school."
Prior to the public presentations, Wong told the Straight the the process wasn't easy for some parents to navigate.
"We didn't realize you had to register beforehand to speak," she noted. "The only way we found out was by asking the principal, who then asked the VSB: 'What is the format?'...We were told you were to look it up on the web site. It was very difficult to find that number. We would have thought it would have been on the home page or one click away. It wasn't necessarily the case."
School-district staff ensured that trustees weren't in the firing line of parents' anger at the meeting by sitting them off to the side at a table. Most parents couldn't see the elected officials unless they were standing, and none of the trustees spoke to the crowd before the public presentations began.
Instead, Cardwell delivered the initial speech on an elevated podium in front of the stage, outlining reasons why Carleton's closure was under consideration.
When it came time for the public to speak, a facilitator on the podium rang a bell twice whenever anyone exceeded the board's three-minute time limit.