This morning, Vancouver school board chair Janet Fraser is expected to meet the media to defend its most controversial decision since last October's by-election.
Trustees voted in favour of a staff recommendation to enter into an agreement to sell a subsurface portion of the land underneath Lord Roberts Annex to B.C. Hydro.
This would enable the Crown-owned utility to build an underground power station. The money will be used "to construct a new school at Coal Harbour School and a replacement Lord Roberts Annex", according to the motion.
The deal is subject to the approval of a board bylaw and Education Minister Rob Fleming.
“We thank our stakeholders and the West End community for their interest and input on this proposal and I also thank our Board of Trustees for their due diligence in reviewing the proposal materials and asking many questions,” Fraser said in a news release. “Having considered all relevant factors the Board has now voted to move forward with this project. The VSB will continue to consult and work with our stakeholders and the West End community as the timeline for this project unfolds.”
The Coal Harbour school will take in students temporarily displaced from Lord Roberts Annex while the substation is being built.
The two NPA trustees, Lisa Dominato and Fraser Ballantyne, both strongly endorsed the decision.
“There is a critical need for another school in the West End and this agreement will enable us to move ahead with this project sooner so we can meet the educational needs of current and future families,” Dominato said in a party news release. “The minister of education has been clear that the province does not intend to fund this project any time soon.”
OneCity trustee Carrie Bercic and Vision Vancouver's Ken Clement voted against the plan.
Parents have raised concerns about the electromagnetic field's impact on students after the substation is completed.
B.C. Hydro has responded by saying that "shielding the lines" will lower the electromagnetic field's impact by 75 percent.
"This will bring the EMF back to the current background level in the environment, as if the substation was not present," the VSB planning and facilities committee minutes state. "Continual monitoring will be in place if the substation is constructed."
One of the harshest critics of the sale has been former Vision Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus, now the Straight's education columnist.
"Let’s face it, the real beneficiary of this proposal is the government, which would be able to check a much-needed new school off its list and spend the money building one somewhere else it needs to hold on to seats, like Surrey," Bacchus wrote last month. "It’s a good deal for B.C. Hydro, as well, because it’s hoping to get a below-market deal for rights to the VSB site instead of buying privately owned land. I’ll tell you who it’s not a good deal for—West End residents."
That's because the neighbourhood will lose a small school and several trees. In return, residents will endure five or more years of construction.
"They get left with a buried electrical substation they worry will harm their and their children’s health, or maybe catch fire or blow up, as substations have been known to do," Bacchus added in her column. "They may or may not get a school built on the site that would open in 2030 or later."
B.C. Hydro, on the other hand, has claimed that its nitrogen-insulated transformer, rather than a conventional transformer, "will cut off the source of any explosion", according to the committee minutes.