Seismic mitigation for Vancouver schools must include stakeholder consultation

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      By Brenda Brown and Kevin Harris

      Seismic mitigation is an urgent priority for children and families in Vancouver. Unfortunately, this has been the case for 20 years. Initially, the goal was to complete seismic upgrading for all schools by 2020. When it became apparent that was not happening, the time frame was arbitrarily revised to 2030.

      Although no one can predict with certainty when British Columbia will have “the big one”, we live in a seismically active area and the risk is omnipresent and real. It is obvious that the consequences of not addressing seismic mitigation are potentially devastating. It is equally clear that the consequences of not getting seismic right will lead to extraordinary consequences for families and communities across Vancouver and waste millions of taxpayers’ dollars.

      Seismic mitigation presents the VSB and Ministry of Education with several important opportunities. The demographics of children in Vancouver are rapidly changing. Planned growth areas centred on transit hubs are a beacon of future student-population growth. Many of these schools are already over capacity. The VSB has adopted “right-sizing” during seismic mitigation as a way of downsizing schools in areas of the city that have declining student populations.

      School expansion during seismic mitigation in growth areas should be pursued as part of this strategy. Combining expansion with new construction presents opportunities for cost savings. Most schools in the city are approaching 100 years in age, and “deferred maintenance” costs (currently estimated at $700 million) are skyrocketing as schools age, pipes break down, structural problems arise, and energy inefficiency worsens.

      Edith Cavell Elementary School is located in the Cambie Corridor (20th Avenue and Cambie Street) and is a prime example of such a school. It is at 125-percent capacity and will undoubtedly grow in the coming years in accordance with the city’s vision for growth along the Canada Line. The school is old and dilapidated and has not had necessary maintenance during recent decades due to inadequate citywide funding to maintain old buildings. Cavell has been identified by VSB as needing urgent expansion as it is bursting at the seams and has portables scattered across its meagre city lot, limiting outdoor space for children.

      Edith Cavell Elementary as it appeared in the 1920s.
      vancouver City Archives

      In the past when seismic projects were planned, the local community was consulted to help provide input on local factors that could benefit the project and ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately this has now changed. The Cavell seismic mitigation was planned in secret with no involvement of parents, teachers, and community pillars such as the local city daycare facility. The result is astonishing and should serve as a warning to the more than 50 schools that remain on the seismic-upgrade list.

      The Ministry of Education and VSB have announced that Cavell will be progressing with seismic mitigation without addressing deficiencies in the building and without doing the planned expansion. For the duration of the project (expected to span several years), children would be relocated to two different schools that are on the opposite side of the city—literally as far away as possible from their community. The plan is for children as young as four years old to be placed on unsupervised buses with up to 80 children for 45 minutes each way. If children are not able to make the bus every day (e.g., due to the need for tutoring or participation in extracurricular activities) they are ineligible to be bused at all.

      The burden this will place on parents and families is unimaginable. Many siblings will be split up at two different schools and may have to move between schools from one year to the next. Many parents will no longer be able to volunteer due to prohibitive distances and travel times from their home community and work places.

      Needless to say parents, staff and community members were shocked that this decision had been made and, moreover, that it had been made without consultation.
      The good news is there are alternatives available to provide temporary accommodation for Cavell students much closer to the Cambie Corridor. The VSB needs to work collaboratively and creatively with PACs now and in the future when evaluating and selecting temporary accommodation sites. Given the need to quickly scale up the number of seismic-mitigation projects to complete the remaining 50-plus schools by 2030, identifying new “swing spaces” is a top priority. There are 5,000 empty spaces in Vancouver classrooms, and we need to ensure that we continue to place emphasis on keeping children together and close to their home community.

      There is compelling evidence that this decision is a poor use of taxpayer dollars. There is a strong rationale for rebuilding: a 2011 report to VSB indicated that taxpayers would save more than $4.6 million if Edith Cavell was rebuilt instead of doing seismic mitigation and addressing the buildings’ deficiencies. The condition of Cavell has continued to deteriorate since 2011. The number of children in the Cavell catchment has been increasing annually. Experts agree that doing a seismic upgrade alone is not cost efficient and, in the event of an earthquake, the building would not subsequently be useable. New schools built to 2018 standards are much more likely to withstand the effects of an earthquake and have children return to the same building without the additional expense of another construction project.

      The seismic-mitigation process change that we have borne witness to at Edith Cavell Elementary is a harbinger of shortsighted decision-making that avoids consultation with key stakeholders. This should serve as a call to action for both parents across the city at schools that are in desperate need of seismic mitigation and upgrading and taxpayers who are keen to see judicious use of public funds. Is a temporary solution that lacks long-term vision really the position a provincial NDP government wants to espouse? Civic politicians in Vancouver have historically been thought of as progressive on the national and international stage—let’s not forget that.

      Today, we are at a crossroads and need to decide if our city and province will choose the right path for our city, schools, and tax dollars. Edith Cavell is truly the canary in the coal mine. It’s not too late to make the right decision on this project, to move forward quickly but collaboratively and have it serve as a model for future projects across Vancouver.