Patti Bacchus: VSB to vote on future land plans

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      Do you care if your local elementary school closes? If it gets sold to private parties? Does it matter to you if your local high school is “consolidated” with another one?

      It matters to me, and I don’t have kids in school any more.

      I consider our local elementary school, where my kids went from kindergarten through Grade 7, and where my father went in the late 1920s, to be the heart of our community; an anchor of sorts. It links us together, and I want future generations to have the opportunity to walk to it and play in the park beside it on the way home from school. Losing it would alter our community and hollow it out. I suspect others feel that way about their neighbourhood schools too.

      Young families with infants and toddlers care about their local schools as well. Families looking to move to new homes, purchased or rented, usually want to know about schools in the area, whether they offer childcare, if they’re seismically safe, and what their future looks like.

      That’s what having a stake in your local school looks like, but these days, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) doesn’t include folks like you or me in its select group of “stakeholders” when it comes to its confidential, closed-door meetings where they workshop the future of VSB schools.

      It wasn’t like that in my day on the board and it shouldn’t be now. Schools, and all VSB-owned properties, belong to the people of Vancouver, and we should all have the opportunity to participate in all discussions about their future.

      The VSB is voting on its long-range facilities plan on Monday, January 25

      The VSB has a massive real estate portfolio worth about $7.6 billion, totalling about 600 acres and comprising 125 sites (a handful are leased but most are owned). Many of those sites are home to old and seismically unsafe buildings that are in terrible condition due to years of underfunded maintenance budgets. According to Dickensian Ministry of Education formulas, the VSB has room for about 58,000 students but only has about 48,400 students enrolled, meaning there is “excess capacity” in several schools.

      I used quotation marks on excess capacity because much of that space is put to good use for things like sensory rooms for students with special needs, art and music classes in elementary schools, or early learning programs like Strong Start. Having some extra space in a school comes in handy and is a plus, in my view, but the government doesn’t like it.

      B.C.’s Ministry of Education requires school districts to have long-range facility plans (LRFPs) to rationalize their requests for capital funding (for seismic upgrades, new schools and other building upgrades, renovations, or expansions). They want a coherent and strategic approach to investing in school buildings, which is fair and prudent, to an extent, but at times overly shortsighted and parsimonious.

      It’s also important for large and complex districts with a huge backlog of maintenance work and seismic upgrades to have a plan to prioritize their funding requests. Unlike annual operating-funding grants, which are based on the number of students enrolled in a district, most capital funding for building upgrades, seismic work, renovations, and new schools is allocated on a case-by-case basis, via district requests to the provincial government.

      The Minister of Education expects each school district to have an LRFP that’s updated annually. The VSB hasn’t approved an LRFP since 2016 (when I was on the board), and the last time it submitted a capital-funding request, the ministry told it to go away and come back when they had an approved, updated LRFP.

      Vancouver School Board (School District 39)
      Martin Dunphy

      It’s not entirely the VSB’s fault. That last time it put together an LRFP, in 2019, it caused enough of a stir that Rob Fleming, then education minister, changed the rules about LRFPs, sending the VSB back to the drafting table. The district has been working on the latest version since then, in various fits and starts.

      Now trustees are expected, at last, to approve the updated LRFP following a school district survey and some online public consultation in 2020. The management-drafted plan was workshopped in private, closed-door meetings with selected “stakeholder” representatives in December and earlier this month.

      The LRFP, which runs 175 pages (including appendices), was posted online on January 11, giving the public less than two days to review it prior to it going to the district’s facilities planning committee on January 13, where it was discussed among committee members before going to the January 25 board meeting for formal approval.

      That’s a ridiculously short amount of time to give the public an opportunity to review a long, complex document that is intended to map out the future of the city’s public schools. That alone should raise concern for those being asked to vote on it. Surely they want to hear if the public has concerns about what’s in it before they vote.

      The VSB’s district-parent-group representative on the facilities committee, Vik Khanna—who is clearly a man who does his homework and takes his role seriously—had come to last week’s VSB facilities meeting with much to say on behalf of parents. The district parent group had combed through the draft plan and had extensive feedback and advice, and Khanna wanted time to go through it and for trustees to amend the plan accordingly.

      DPAC facilities-committee chair Vik Khanna

      The committee chair, Trustee Allan Wong, tried to rush Khanna through the parents’ feedback, suggesting that Khanna send it by email. Khanna was having none of that and pressed for another public meeting, and after much backing and forthing, he got one. They held it this past Monday night (January 18). Good on Khanna, but bad on the board for making it so hard for anyone, especially parents, to provide feedback on such a significant plan prior to trustees voting to approve it.

      What the parents are asking for

      Parents in the VSB are formally represented through the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) and Khanna represents them on the facilities committee. DPAC consults with VSB parent advisory councils and its executive members (who are volunteers), provides advice to the VSB on a range of issues, and has seats on all VSB standing committees.

      They’ve put in hours of work on the proposed LRFP and are asking the board to direct its staff to incorporate the board’s previously drafted vision for the LRFP into the actual planning document, instead of tucking it away in an appendix like some kind of afterthought.

      It’s significant because the district bureaucrats who drafted the plan seem more focused on what their counterparts in the Ministry of Education want to see in the plan—school consolidations, school closures, selling land to raise money to contribute to seismic upgrades and new schools, efficiencies, etcetera—versus the trustees' vision, which is about providing vibrant, seismically safe schools in every community, with a focus on equity, opportunities, environmental sustainability, a range of choice options that are equitably accessible, and working collaboratively with local First Nations.

      When questions and concerns about this disconnect came up in the committee meetings last week and this Monday, they were dismissed with assurances that the LRFP is an “iterative” or “dynamic” document and can be fixed at some undefined later date. Hogwash. If district staff want the board to approve it, it should reflect the trustees’ wishes, period.

      The parents are also asking for more enrollment data, which should have been provided in the first place, such as how many school-aged students live in a school catchment area and how many are projected to live there in future. They also want more information about buildings’ accessibility (elevators, sensory rooms, etcetera) for people with physical and learning disabilities.

      Requests for more data aren’t new. I’ve been following VSB efforts—and much of that time participating in them as either a DPAC representative or trustee—to come up with facilities plans for two decades. Debate over how to calculate enrollment—kids who currently go to catchment schools versus all school-aged kids in the catchment versus those who also come from outside the catchment versus impact of future development on numbers, and so on—comes up every time.

      Some management teams over the years have done an excellent job of sharing extensive data, while the current crew seem less inclined to do so, as was the case in 2016, leading to conflict between trustees, management, parents, local MLAs, and the public.

      Red flags

      When someone’s proposing a plan and asking for its approval but doesn’t want to freely share data and says not to worry about its flaws because they can be fixed at some undefined later date, anyone being asked to approve the plan should proceed with great caution.

      My advice to the board is don’t be rushed into the vote. Demand all the information you need, and oppose the plan if it doesn’t reflect the board’s values. Once it’s approved, it becomes the board’s plan, and promised fixes may or may not get made—but trustees will be held accountable for it.

      Missing pieces

      I followed the LRFP process and something that has surprised me is how little focus there has been on childcare space. Childcare is mentioned, briefly, but really only in passing. Yet Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside’s mandate letter from Premier John Horgan focuses on integrating childcare “into the broader learning environment by developing a strategy to move delivery of child care into the Ministry of Education by 2023.”

      Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside

      Whiteside is also tasked with “prioritizing before- and after-school care on school grounds”.

      You’d think such a major shift in government policy would trigger a focus on increasing childcare space in VSB facilities, but you’d be mistaken, unfortunately.

      Likewise for Indigenous reconciliation: While every VSB meeting starts with an acknowledgement that they are meeting in unceded Indigenous territory, there’s no commitment to seeking Indigenous consent before selling or repurposing land.

      The bottom line

      The VSB needs to sign off on an LRFP in order to secure provincial funding to build a long-overdue school in the Olympic Village, expand King George secondary, and get on with upgrading or rebuilding dozens of seismically high-risk schools. This government isn’t going to kick up much of a fuss about the details of the plan—it just wants one handed in with a solid rationale for funding requests.

      The proposed plan doesn’t call for specific school closures (aside from Sir Guy Carleton Elementary School, which has been vacant since a fire in August 2016), but it does attempt to create a sort of algorithm for identifying schools that could be closed or “consolidated” with others. 

      Sir Guy Carleton Elementary School was damaged by fire in 2016 and is currently vacant.
      Wikimedia Commons/Arnold C

      I doubt Vancouver schools with kids attending them will ever get closed, unless they’re offered a beautifully, seismically safe alternative nearby. Despite various closure attempts and threats to close schools, history shows they never do in Vancouver (unless they’re already empty, like some primary annexes that were built for baby boom overflow), as there’s just too much community pushback.

      There are better ways to deal with surplus space than replacing two large schools with one. If enrollment projections for an old and seismically unsafe building show the school will have 30 percent surplus space, just replace it with a smaller one or use the extra space for childcare, arts programming, or whatever. It’s not rocket science; it’s just common sense.

      Trustees should insist on an LRFP that reflects their vision, and one that’s framed by it, instead of tucking it away in an appendix where it is in the draft plan. Don’t accept assurances that the plan is “iterative” and can be adjusted later. If the senior bureaucrats refuse to provide a plan based on the trustees’ vision, get some new bureaucrats and let those who think they work for the Ministry of Education go apply to do that.

      Also, don’t let them workshop plans in secret closed-door meetings ever again. Insist that all discussions about the public’s schools be held in public meetings, except for cases where it is truly warranted due to specific negotiations for leases or sales.

      When it comes to Vancouver’s public schools and lands, we all have a stake in their future and we should all have a say.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.