Vancouver schools in jeopardy

As Vancouver trustees consider closing five schools, a new debate is starting over who may be allowed to lease these sites.

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      For many parents across the East Side of Vancouver, including Ann Wong, it’s been a difficult autumn. With a daughter and son attending Sir Guy Carleton elementary, the Wong family is at a crossroads. The Vancouver board of education has put the 114-year-old school in the Collingwood neighbourhood on a short list for possibly closure by the end of June. And she doesn’t know where her kids will go to school next year if trustees don’t listen to the pleas of parents like her to keep Carleton open.

      “My daughter, who has been there since kindergarten, wants to graduate with her friends,” Wong told the Georgia Straight in an interview before the board of education’s public-consultation session at Windermere secondary school on October 25. “This is the only school she has ever known. Geographically, the closest school to us is [Dr. George M.] Weir, but that’s already at over-capacity.”

      Wong, who chairs Carleton’s parent advisory council, was the first one to the microphone when the board of education and superintendent Steve Cardwell finally heard from parents, more than an hour after the meeting was scheduled to begin.

      She told trustees that uncertainty about the school’s future was taking a toll on its nearly 400 students. “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 are “between a rock and a hard place”. But she urged the board to expand activities at the school, suggesting that programs connected to Collingwood Neighbourhood House could be based at Carleton. As an example, she cited an arrangement that has allowed Green Thumb Theatre to use the school’s original building, which was damaged by a fire a couple of years ago. 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 from more than 400 people who had gathered in the Windermere secondary gymnasium.

      The following night, there was a similar meeting at Killarney secondary school to discuss the future of Champlain Heights Annex. The next night (October 27), it was Macdonald elementary parents’ turn to speak. Tonight (October 28), McBride Annex will be the focus of a public meeting at Sir Charles Tupper secondary school. The fifth school that might close, Queen Alexandra elementary, will be the subject of discussion on Monday (November 1) at Vancouver Technical secondary school.

      The board of education has released a major report explaining how five elementary schools ended up on this short list for possible closure. In each case, two conditions applied: that students could be reasonably accommodated in other local schools; and that they could be provided with access to appropriate educational programs.

      The report highlights the district’s overall enrollment and capacity—51,901 students and 60,343 spaces—suggesting there is surplus room in the system, particularly on the city’s East Side. There are also detailed breakdowns of enrollment, operating costs, supplemental programs, heritage status, seismic upgrading, and catchment information for the schools facing possible closure. In addition, the report mentions each school’s assessed value, as well as neighbourhood zoning information.

      At the public meeting concerning Carleton’s future, Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MLA Adrian Dix questioned some of this data, claiming that the school board had misstated the school’s catchment area. He also contended that the board had not taken into account a major development of 800 homes planned for the corner of Kingsway and Boundary Road, which would supply more kids to Carleton in the future.

      The board of education often emphasizes that it faces a shortfall of $9.6 million next year and another $5.7 million in 2012-13. The projected net annual savings from closing all five schools would only amount to $1.45 million, according to the board’s report. “They are puny savings,” Dix told the Straight. “We’re spending $600 million on a roof of a football stadium.”

      NPA trustee Ken Denike explained to the Straight by phone that the board’s financial shortfall shouldn’t be attributed to surplus spaces in East Side elementary schools. He said the district is seeking provincial funding to build new schools where the school-age population is growing, such as downtown, UBC, and southeast Vancouver. “They [provincial officials] have made it quite clear in the past that if you want government capital funding in the areas where we need them, then you should be closing the schools in areas where you don’t need them,” Denike said. “That does make some sense.”

      What hasn’t received nearly as much attention from parents, trustees, and the media, however, is what might happen to the five schools if they’re closed. The vice-chair of the board, Coalition of Progressive Electors trustee Jane Bouey, told the Straight that there isn’t a formal board policy on leasing public-school property to operators of independent or religious schools. The board voted in the past to lease the Shannon Park Annex to the Vancouver Hebrew Academy, which runs a school there. Meanwhile, the Satnam Education Society of B.C. runs its Khalsa school out of portables at the board’s South Hill Education Centre.

      Bouey said she has dedicated much of her life to opposing the erosion of public education. She stated that she’s personally against the idea of leasing public schools to their independent counterparts. “One of the dangers that public education faces is privatization,” she said. “To have schools that are placed in the middle of communities being no longer in the public system”¦moves us a long way in the direction of the privatization of public education.”

      Her view was echoed by fellow COPE trustee Al Blakey in an interview with the Straight before the public meeting on Carleton elementary’s future. “We haven’t as a board, nor have we in COPE, discussed that and come up with a point of view on it yet,” he said. “I’m inclined to say that I’m not keen on having private schools take over our schools.”

      Blakey and the third COPE trustee, Allan Wong, each told the Straight that if schools must be closed, they would prefer that the properties be set aside for community uses. “Whether it be for child care or it be for senior citizens, it’s a public place,” Wong said. “All public facilities should be used for public good.”

      The NPA’s Denike, on the other hand, said the board should consider leasing property to private schools whenever they’re not competing with the public system. He added, however, that these types of deals shouldn’t be a “high priority”.

      Fred Herfst, executive director of the Vancouver-based Federation of Independent School Associations, told the Straight by phone that in some other districts, trustees have refused to sell or lease property under their control to independent schools. He said that his organization thinks it makes sense for boards of education to sign 99-year leases with independent schools, because these arrangements keep the property under public ownership, and the facilities are still being used for educational purposes.

      Herfst noted that the provincial government saves money when students attend an independent school instead of a public one. That’s because taxpayer dollars cover no more than half the per-pupil operating cost of public schools in the area. The government covers none of the capital costs of independent schools.

      In an interview with the Straight in a West Side coffee shop, board of education chair Patti Bacchus said she and her colleagues will have to consider this issue carefully. “If our job as trustees is to protect the interests of this district—if we’re feeling financial pressure in closing down sites—do we open it up for schools that will exacerbate that by drawing more of our populations, or do we look at the short-term benefit of the revenue?” she commented. “So it’s a tough one.”

      In the past, Bacchus said, the district has been approached by parties interested in operating independent schools on public property. “We’ve even had a couple wanting to come into schools that are operating, and use a wing of them,” she acknowledged. “We’ve had some concerns about what that might look like and possible conflicts.”

      When asked explicitly if she has discussed this issue with Herfst’s organization, the Catholic school board, or officials who operate the Khalsa school, she said she has not.

      During her interview with the Straight, Bacchus outlined the impact that provincial decisions have had on the district’s finances. She accused the B.C. Liberal government of imposing $68 million in cumulative cuts since 2002-03. The province negotiates contracts with teachers and CUPE support staff, and, according to Bacchus, basically dictates class sizes through legislation. In addition, she said, the board has to cover the cost of rising provincial medical-services premiums, the expense of reporting carbon emissions, and increases to the teachers’ pension plan. And none of these three areas have been fully funded by the province, according to her.

      Bacchus noted that the district also loses about $8,000 per student when enrollment falls. “Some schools have seen a 50-percent decline over 10 years,” she said. “I don’t think we can ignore that.”

      According to Herfst, approximately 20 percent of Vancouver students attend independent schools. He suggested that this has remained stable for several years. “Vancouver has had a long history of having a fairly substantial component of Catholic schools,” he explained.

      The board of education report highlights the real-estate potential of each of the schools on the closure list. Queen Alexandra, Macdonald, and Carleton are described has having “considerable redevelopment potential”. McBride Annex, on the other hand, has “limited” redevelopment options. Champlain Heights Annex could only be redeveloped within the parameters of the existing zoning.

      So far, no trustees or administrators have offered parents like Ann Wong any insight into how much revenue the board of education could generate by leasing out these school properties. The most valuable one on the list, Carleton, sits on land near the busy intersection of Kingsway and Joyce Street, just up the road from a SkyTrain station. With an assessed value of $22.1 million, it would be a desirable location for anyone considering leasing the space for a new private school, a seniors’ residence, or even a shopping mall. (The board of education owns the land underneath the Kingsgate Mall.)

      While school boards across the province are permitted to lease property, former education minister Margaret MacDiarmid told the Straight earlier this year that the B.C. government discourages the sale of school sites in heavily populated areas such as the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan. Bacchus said she agrees with this policy regarding school sites.

      “There may be alternative uses for them that are public uses,” she noted. “Some of these buildings are not in good condition. They need major upgrades. That question we haven’t delved into greatly. We felt we have to do this one step at a time.”

      She quickly added that if the board spent too much time looking at these schools’ potential for real-estate development, this would predetermine the outcome of public consultations. Bacchus emphasized that the board must go through the process with an open mind; otherwise, it could face a risk of lawsuits from people affected by the decisions.



      Petar Ticinovic

      Oct 28, 2010 at 7:30pm

      How about a more accurate title-like, say, "EAST Vancouver schools in jeopardy"?


      Oct 28, 2010 at 10:13pm

      If a school is to be "decomissioned", then the building should be demolished and the whole area turned into a public park.

      Scott Clark

      Oct 29, 2010 at 4:30pm

      Curious why the media does not address the issues surrounding special needs, English as a Second language, urban Aboriginal children and special needs.

      Why not look at the track record of the BC Liberal policies and how they are worse government in Canada when it comes to funding public education.

      Why the media does not look at how the BC Liberals have torn up agreements, re created legislation to rationalize these cut backs and school closures.

      Why is there no socio-economic analyzes by the media, and how these policies impact the most vulnerable in our society.

      Our kids need our help, not these ridiculous tax cuts Campbell announced to win some support. More assaults against the most vulnerable in this country.


      Oct 29, 2010 at 5:28pm

      Scotty, spending on education increases every year.
      That the school admin dreams up all these fringe-benefit programs
      and the gov't hesisitates to fund them does NOT mean education is underfunded. It just means we're not going to fund every lah-de-dah idea the academics dream up. If it's such a great idea, fund it yourselves! Nobody is stopping you except the teacher's union who won't like the competition. Note that even as funding is an issue due to demands from teachers and their academic partners-in-spend-more-on-non-core-programs, the teachers run another campaign to stop students from writing provincials. Seems it's "wrong" to have a standardized system to rate schools! Why? Why, someone might use the results to show something the teachers don't want shown, of course!


      Oct 29, 2010 at 8:15pm

      welldoneson, explain this if you can:
      Campbell has admitted that Gr.4 students in BC are not up to snuff in the reading department. He has promised to see to it that they are. Now consider this - Gr.4 students were all born about when he first took office. So the lack of performance can only be placed square in his lap. Can't blame the NDP for his completely inadequate funding of elementary schooling. Or are you saying that those "commie teachers" are sabotaging the education system?

      Scott Clark

      Oct 29, 2010 at 9:20pm

      @ welldoneson (wds),

      Actually it is not so simple wds, if you took the time to understand the the Ministry of Education and the restructuring of the school system by the BC Liberals, you would see a clear picture, that could easily explain away your, INDIVIDUAL REDUCTIONIST PERSPECTIVE.

      The provincial government has consistently underfunded education , in fact if you factor in all the variables, inflation, operating agreements, maintenance, you will see, that BC Liberals have increased funding by only $2.00 per student, since 2003, whereas the other provinces have increased it to $47.00 per students.

      The class room of the 21 century is not as simple as your mind appears to work either,wds. Over 10% of the total school age population are Aboriginal students , another 10% who have English as a Second Language, and another 10% students with Special needs. Our class rooms reflect our communities, and out teachers have to highly trained to deal with such a rich and diverse class room. Sadly, as a result of the ongoing assault against public education, the school districts have had to eliminate almost 1000 full time positions, this impacts the teachers ability to meet all the needs of the students in the classroom. And this ultimately impacts our children and community.

      In fact, it was the BC Liberals who eliminated the policie of limiting the number of gifted or special needs children to each class. In fact the policy of deciding when a school is under populated needs to be reviewed, these strict guidelines need to be revisited when the Liberal are gone from office.

      I am curious wds, are you aware, our schools have to fund raise for things like computers, text books and library books/ Are you aware that in the past 10 years their budgets have been cut in half? Are you aware that the government funds up to 70% for private schools, when we calculate tax receipts issued to parents? Are further aware, the BC Liberals have dropped the ball on seismic upgrading?

      I believe wds, what we have going on here is a political party which is purposely destroying public education, year after year. Do some research and see if you can see a pattern. And only when we open our eyes to the process, not the sound bytes, media or the Fraser Institute put out there ,will you be able to respond in a critical manner.

      glen p robbins

      Oct 31, 2010 at 8:04am

      Ironically, and sadly for many young children and their parents - this issue is likely the final event to finish the careers of Campbell, Hansen, Heed in Vancouver.


      Oct 31, 2010 at 12:28pm

      Number 1 question is HOW DID THEY COME UP WITH THE 11 school?Where is the audit of the other 100 schools in VSB system? Steve is the sole person who picked these schools, from all the newspaper articles.

      Remember Sir Guy Carleton Elementary School land is worth $22 Million dollars, worth alot more to a developer to build comercial buildings and residential suites and sell it for double the investment.
      Wonder if we will have another Basi/Virk court case, with regarding the sales of VSB School closure land.
      Campbell Government spent $600 million on BC PLACE, 3 Billions or more on Olympics....etc and can't fund public school or health care system properly.... We all remember the NDP fastcat ferry fiasco

      glen p robbins

      Nov 1, 2010 at 4:08pm

      Oh yea - the Roof too.