By Rory Brown
Along with back-to-school shopping for backpacks, pencils, and new clothes that this time of year brings, it carries with it another responsibility for everyone invested in public education. On October 15, voters in Vancouver and the University Endowment Lands will elect a new Vancouver School Board. This year, this vote is especially important. Here’s why.
Over the last four years—the mandate of the current board—there have been many changes to the way the Vancouver School Board operates, especially in the processes that allow parents and community groups to participate in their decisions. It has become much more difficult for people who care about public education in Vancouver to talk to decision-makers and participate in the conversations about the direction of the VSB.
Unlike city council, where debate and public input has been rigorous, passionate, and public for the last four years, the existing Vancouver School Board has allowed changes put forward by senior VSB staff to close debate, disrupt traditions of public input, and confuse parents about their options to have a say in the important task of educating their children.
Of particular concern are the many issues that surround the use, maintenance, future, and stewardship of VSB lands and facilities. VSB land is a precious endowment, primarily used for schools, and in all likelihood needed in the future for the educational needs of the city’s inevitably increasing school-age population.
Incredibly, the current VSB has quietly approved a plan to sell portions of some school facilities and is likely exploring the possibility of more school land sales. While shortfalls in the budget due to chronic provincial underfunding is the cause for sale, it is incredibly short-sighted to dispose of facilities and lands that will be needed in a city where the school-age population will certainly increase.
The Green party–NPA coalition that has overseen these decisions has also mismanaged school enrollment in ways that strain and harm children and families. Many families who live directly across the street from a neighborhood school can’t access space in the school for their soon-to-be kindergartner, while schools located only one or two school boundary zones adjacent report excess space. We need to do better. Secondary schools that sit in wealthy neighborhoods of many empty homes are full of students who are driven across the city for exclusive special programs not accessible to all. Let’s fix that using a transparent lottery system to create universal school-choice programming.
Many schools have huge deferred and unaddressed maintenance issues. The Indigenous-focused elementary school, X’pey, is housed in a decrepit building that bears the name of one of Canada’s architects of residential schools over the entrance way. There are schools where windows can't be opened. Many school kitchens have ancient equipment that cannot be repaired or replaced. Just about every school needs work done!
The much delayed Seismic Mitigation Program (SMP), designed to construct and repair schools vulnerable to earthquake, only funds building repairs to the portions of facilities that are earthquake vulnerable. There’s nothing extra to bring a school up to modern standards if only a portion of the school needs seismic work. Moreover, schools are only funded for the size of their current population—even if that population is likely to grow due to planned development.
It’s important to remember that despite these difficult messes, there are still fantastic things happening in Vancouver schools. Although the provincial teacher shortage and the city’s housing costs have posed challenges in staffing Vancouver’s schools, our teachers and administrators continue to support student learning with compassion, creativity, and deep commitment. But things—for students and staff—could be much better.
If the district had a board of trustees with foresight that included some (any) creative solutions, Vancouver families would be better served. On the issue of facilities, there needs to be a far greater focus on sharing data, ideas, and plans with other levels of government, particularly the city. Voters should elect a school board that has a focus on liveable neighborhoods for everyone as the driving motivation for their school system.
Schools can be the heart of a neighborhood. They are often a catalyst for lifelong friendships for not only students, but also families. Students need to be able to attend their neighbourhood schools and families need to know that their neighbourhood school is usually the best option for their children. School boundaries need to be redrawn regularly so school planning reflects where students currently live and where they will live in the future. Considering the life cycle of school buildings and the cost of their construction, school facility planning needs to look forward at least 50 years, not just the current 15.
With a focus on equity, transparency, and collaborative decision-making, with creative, innovative and systemwide solutions to the complex problems we face, Vancouver families can regain trust in their public education system.