Patti Bacchus: VSB land sale to B.C. Hydro sets a risky precedent

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      Some families may be happy with news that Coal Harbour will get a new school by 2023, but others are questioning whether its price is way too high.

      It is, by the risky precedent it sets alone.

      I was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t have to vote Monday night (June 25) on B.C. Hydro’s offer to buy rights to a “subsurface parcel” at the Vancouver school board’s (VSB) Lord Roberts Annex site in the West End for the development of an underground electrical substation.

      Hydro’s offer was, apparently, to pay the VSB “full market value” for the underground land parcel, where it will build an electrical substation. The amount will be disclosed after the sale is ratified by B.C. Hydro’s board.

      Lord Roberts Annex.

      The VSB says it will use the deal’s proceeds to build a new school in Coal Harbour and to replace the existing school at the annex site—in the same block as Nelson Park, just west of St. Paul's Hospital—once the substation is completed, in about 2028. Students who normally attend the annex will attend the Coal Harbour school while the substation and their replacement school are being built. Construction on the substation won’t start until the Coal Harbour school is ready, which is expected to be in 2023.

      VSB voted 6-2 to sell

      The VSB agreed to the controversial sale at the June 25 board meeting by a vote of 6-2. Trustees Janet Fraser, Joy Alexander, Estrellita Gonzalez, Fraser Ballantyne, Allan Wong and Lisa Dominato voted in favour, and trustees Carrie Bercic and Ken Clement opposed it. Trustee Judy Zaichkowsky was not at the meeting.

      Several parents and community members had asked the trustees to oppose the sale, citing: potential health risks from the substation; disruption to the community from construction noise and emissions; loss of the annex for several years; lack of assurance that the sale’s proceeds would be used for VSB capital projects downtown; objections to the VSB having to sell assets for projects the provincial government is supposed to fund; and the loss of mature trees at Nelson Park.

      Other parents and community members supported the project, saying the province wouldn’t fund the needed new school space for years and that the substation had to go somewhere in the West End and may as well go at the school site.

      Board chair Janet Fraser says government “forced” trustees to make the decision to sell

      Despite voting in favour of the sale herself, VSB chair Janet Fraser came out swinging in media interviews after the board’s decision, placing the blame for it squarely on the provincial government. She claimed trustees “were forced to make the difficult decision because the provincial government had no intention of building the infrastructure needed to house growing numbers of students.”

      I emailed the Ministry of Education to get its side of the story. In an emailed response, Education Minister Rob Fleming fired off a few shots at the former B.C. Liberal government for “16 years of neglect” that left “a significant backlog of school construction in Vancouver and across the province” and said the decision to sell was “entirely a board decision”.

      I don’t disagree with Fleming that the former government left him a big mess and construction backlog. I’m not completely convinced, however, that there wasn’t ministry pressure to take this Hydro deal.

      Earlier this month, there were media reports that Fleming was hinting “that those in Vancouver’s West End could soon benefit from an exciting announcement”. I’ve heard this sale called many things, but “exciting” isn’t one of them.

      I have sympathy for Fraser’s position, having successfully gone to the former provincial government to get hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for new schools and seismic upgrades myself. They played rough in negotiations and the new government seems to be doing the same.

      The last government pressured the VSB to sell property, but we refused and we didn’t blink. The battles were tough, but we persisted. We rallied parent and community support, and we managed to get funding for many projects, including the newest downtown school, Crosstown, and several seismic-replacement schools and upgrades.

      Just before the former B.C. Liberal education minister fired us in 2016, he pressured us to sell all or a portion of the Kingsgate Mall site to offset a shortfall in our annual operating budget. We refused. The Kingsgate lease proceeds give the district an ongoing, annual revenue stream that can be used to support student programs. It’s a valuable asset that should be kept to benefit Vancouver students for generations to come.

      It was tough being a school trustee during the B.C. Liberal government years. They put the squeeze on school boards and many succumbed to government pressure to close schools and sell property. I am proud that even in the most challenging times, we literally held our ground—or, rather, the public’s ground—in the face of government pressure. The land we refused to sell is more valuable than ever, and it still belongs to the school district.

      Trustees are elected to be stewards of the public’s assets and advocates for their districts. They’re often caught between what their constituents want and what the government will pay for, with limited ways to raise funds on their own.

      Did the Ministry of Education “strong-arm” the VSB to sell?

      The VSB is land-rich and cash-poor, and it can be tempting to make shortsighted decisions to sell land to make some needed quick bucks. During this week’s VSB debate prior to the B.C. Hydro vote, several trustees said they felt pressured by government to accept the deal. Trustee Wong went so far as to suggest that by agreeing to sell the underground parcel to B.C. Hydro, the VSB would please the government and it would be willing to work with the VSB on future projects.

      The incoming chair of the Vancouver district parent advisory council, Shaun Kalley, tweeted the morning after the VSB decision: “What seems to be missing in most of the discussion this morning is that the ministry of education seemingly strong-armed this outcome by threatening the rest of the VSB’s facilities plan.” I suspect he’s correct.

      I don’t doubt that the current trustees, or at least some of them, had some sleepless nights over the B.C. Hydro decision. I know I would have. Although I would have ultimately voted no, I would have done so with the worry that kids living downtown may not get to go to schools in their own neighbourhoods for many years to come, although that will still be the case for many, even with the B.C. Hydro deal.

      If I’d voted yes to the sale, I’d live with a nagging fear in the back of my head that parents’ concerns about electromagnetic-field (EMF) safety might turn out to be valid and that even one child might get sick one day because of our decision. I’d also think of all the disabled people and seniors living in social housing by the annex site who will be faced with years of construction noise and disruption. Those folks can’t simply “move to the country”, as Vancouver Green party trustee Gonzalez said Monday that people who don’t like construction noise should do. Perhaps she thinks they should eat cake while they’re at it.

      Troubling precedent: What will the VSB have to sell next?

      Most of all, I’d worry that agreeing to sell a school-board asset to pay for something the province is supposed to pay for was crossing a line that hasn’t been crossed before in Vancouver. I’d worry about the precedent that set and what we’d be pressured to sell next.

      The VSB desperately needs funding to build a new school at the Olympic Village. What happens if Minister Fleming decides the VSB should sell more property to pay for that? What about the hundreds of millions of dollars the VSB needs to complete all the remaining upgrades or replacements of seismically high-risk schools? Why not close some schools and sell the land?

      Where will it end?

      Fraser is blaming the government for forcing the VSB into this decision. She has been quoted in media interviews saying that the VSB is frustrated, angry, and upset at having to make the decision. Not upset enough to say no, however.

      Trustee Bercic seemed angry too, and she refused to play along. She voted no to the sale. Clement did too. Good on them. They were prepared to call government on what may very well have been a bluff. West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert told the VSB last week that he was committed to getting funding for the new schools if the B.C. Hydro deal didn’t go ahead. I suspect that one way or another, government would have come through with the money—and sooner rather than later.

      But the VSB blinked first.

      Bercic and Clement were right to vote no, and the others were wrong to give in. Funding for new schools is a provincial responsibility. No other B.C. community has been asked to accept a buried electrical station next to an elementary school and well-used public park to pay for public schools it needs. This is a risky precedent that signals the VSB is open to selling its assets to pay for things the provincial government is supposed to fund.

      Vancouver taxpayers already contribute far more than their share through the school property-tax levy, not to mention all the other taxes they contribute. They’ve paid for these schools already, but now they’re being asked to pay again by accepting this underground substation beside an elementary school and a public park. They can blame the provincial government for not funding the schools they need, and they can blame the school trustees who agreed to play along and set this dangerous example.

      I’ll be taking a bit of a summer break myself, so this will be my last column until late August. Have a good one!

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