Patti Bacchus: B.C.’s school seismic approach needs shakeup

    1 of 5 2 of 5

      I turned on the TV news last weekend to hear education minister Rob Fleming, who surely knows better, trying to pass the buck on his government’s penny-wise, pound-foolish plans for seismically upgrading Vancouver’s Edith Cavell Elementary School.

      It was the kind of performance I was wearily familiar with as a school-board chair under the former B.C. Liberal government. I thought those bleak days were over, at least for a while. It seems I was mistaken.

      Fleming was a sharp education critic when the NDP was in opposition, and he could often be counted on to join parents who were rallying to demand funding for school seismic upgrades. He knew the issue well then, and I have no doubt he still does. When Premier John Horgan appointed him as education minister, I figured school boards wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of nasty, shortsighted—and possibly deadly—games the previous government played to get out of paying for the cost of properly upgrading or replacing B.C.’s schools that are at high risk of major structural failure in an earthquake. I figured wrong, unfortunately.

      Rob Fleming

      The present

      Parents whose kids go to Edith Cavell elementary at West 20th Avenue and Cambie Street on Vancouver’s West Side are furious about plans to seismically upgrade the 98-year-old school. In what should have been a great news announcement in late September, Fleming said government was putting up $15.6 million to seismically upgrade Cavell.

      Students will be split into two groups during construction and bused across town to MacCorkindale and Champlain Heights elementary schools until their upgraded school is ready to be reoccupied.

      The upgrade plan fails to address the school’s current and projected space shortage and the millions of dollars of deferred maintenance work that still needs to be done at some point. Parents are calling for a new plan to build a new, larger school and to tear down the old one, arguing that if you factor in the long-term costs alone, it makes financial sense.

      They’re also angry they were never consulted on the plans before the government announcement, and it sounds like the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) trustees weren’t either.

      The past

      When students, parents, and community members convinced the previous B.C. Liberal government to commit to upgrading all of B.C.'s seismically high-risk schools back in 2005, few realized how complicated and expensive it would be. It turns out that many, if not most, old schools are made of the worst kinds of construction to withstand the forces on an earthquake. They’re often brittle, heavy, unreinforced buildings that are held together by gravity, lead paint, and poor-quality, decades-old masonry. Many contain asbestos, silica, mercury and PCBs and have out-of-date plumbing, lighting, heating, and mechanical systems, along with other nasty surprises hiding behind the walls.

      The foundations are often terrible quality and the elevations make for accessibility challenges. They’re designed with yesteryear’s teaching styles in mind and, for the most part, have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance issues that need to be dealt with.

      After a few expensive seismic-upgrade projects in Vancouver, including Vancouver Technical Secondary and Laura Secord and Kerrisdale elementary schools, both the VSB and government realized it often made more sense to demolish old schools and replace them with new ones, except in cases where there was significant heritage value.

      New buildings would have flexibility and updated design

      In addition to getting seismically safe buildings that would be more likely to be usable after an earthquake than old, retrofitted ones (new buildings are required to be built to a higher safety factor than are retrofitted ones), buildings could also be designed to be flexible and incorporate modern designs that would take advantage of natural light and advances in energy efficiency. They could also be “right sized” and built to fit the school’s current and projected enrollment, as well as being designed for more educational functionality than the old ones.

      Government told school districts to submit plans to demolish and replace if the cost of upgrading a school and providing portables for temporary accommodation was more than about 70 percent of the cost of building a new one.

      An additional advantage to that approach was that new schools could be built on a school’s site, usually on the playing field, while the old one was used until the new one was ready. Once students and staff moved into the new school, the old one could be demolished. It was far less disruptive than trying to upgrade a school with students on-site or to move an entire school population to one or more “swing” sites.

      That’s what we did with Charles Dickens, Douglas, Sexsmith, and Kitchener elementary schools. In cases where sites were too small to build a new school with the old one still there—as was the case for General Gordon and L’Ecole Bilingue elementaries—students were bused to temporary swing sites for the duration of the construction. 

      And then along came B.C. Liberal education minister Peter Fassbender, who seemed to be determined to drive down government’s costs, regardless of how shortsighted that was in terms of a long-term business case and expenses to taxpayers.

      General Gordon Elementary School and its seismic advisory committee (from left: Bill Uhrich, Emily Pickett, Jean Gordon, Linda Light, and Larry Benge) in 2011.

      In the spring of 2014, Fassbender shocked school boards by telling superintendents their districts would now be required to pay for up to half the costs of their seismic upgrades. It was a bizarre and confusing directive that government walked back quickly, but it wasn’t Fassbender’s last stab at saving money on seismic.

      For several years that I chaired the Vancouver School Board, we asked government to stop the hill-by-hill, painfully slow, and inefficient process of getting seismic projects completed by giving us funding approval for multiple projects at once so we could be more strategic and efficient in our planning, construction, and temporary-accommodation facilities. I used the example of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing concept, where we could put together an expert team tasked with completing the VSB’s seismic-upgrade or replacement projects in a timely and cost-effective manner.

      Until then, we had been muddling along, with our overextended facilities department taking responsibility for planning and overseeing multiple major construction projects that were erratically—and often inadequately—funded by government on a project-by-project basis.

      We started pitching the project-office approach to government in 2011, but they were largely uninterested in supporting us, preferring to sign off on projects one or two at a time. That approach was slow and inefficient and meant we couldn’t bring on dedicated staff to learn from each project and plan ahead in a way that could speed up the process of getting all the high-risk schools upgraded.

      We were excited in 2014 when Fassbender said he wanted to meet with our board regarding the seismic-project office we’d asked for. That excitement quickly turned to frustration when it became clear that government was only coming around to the idea as a means to stop us from making the case for anything but the cheapest possible upgrade, regardless of whether that approach meant spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on lousy buildings that would likely have to be rebuilt after a significant earthquake and still need new roofs, plumbing, and heating systems.

      B.C. Liberals put saving money ahead of intelligent planning

      Around that time, government quietly decided to stop funding portables for temporary accommodation during construction, instead directing school districts to bus kids to wherever there was space, regardless of the distance and regardless of whether school populations and staff would have to be split up. That change alone made upgrade-only budgets come in a lot cheaper than when they included the cost of portables, in comparison to the cost of rebuilding. That made schools like the VSB’s Kingsford-Smith candidates for an upgrade only—with kids being bused to two other schools during construction—when previously it was pretty much a slam dunk for a new build if you factored in the cost of portables to be used during the upgrade.

      Building a new school would have been a much better approach and a far better use of public funds over the long term than simply upgrading the old Kingsford-Smith building. A new build would have eliminated the millions of dollars in deferred maintenance issues and could be a much nicer building than what they’re ending up with, millions of dollars later. The students and staff could have stayed on site in their old building while the new one was being built, instead of spending two years riding buses to two separate schools.

      It was around that same time that instructions from government to school districts changed. They no longer wanted to fund replacement schools, even when the costs of upgrading were more than 70 percent of the cost of a new building, and even if there were millions of dollars of deferred maintenance that needed to be dealt with. They wanted the cheapest possible upgrade and not a penny more, long-term costs be damned. 

      The led to absurd situations where students would be moved out of a school for two years while walls were removed and upgraded, and there was no money to replace aged pipes and electrical systems that were exposed during the upgrade. They would only fund repairs to things that were directly touched or disturbed by the seismic work. Obviously, it’s far more cost effective to deal with all the work that needs to be done while the students are out of the building and the walls were opened up. If it was your house, you wouldn’t close the walls up and leave in faulty, outdated equipment, knowing you’d have to reopen the walls in a few years and deal with the problem then. What they were instructing school boards to do was a mind-blowingly stupid and irresponsible way to spend the public’s money on its buildings.

      Edith Cavell elementary in the 1920s.
      Vancouver City Archives

      As a school trustee, my approach to decision-making was to spend the public’s money the same way I’d spend my own. We recently had to make a decision about our home heating and hot-water system. We had a boiler-and-tank system, and the tank was in need of replacement. Estimates for the tank’s replacement were in the $3,200 range. The catch was the boiler component of the system was 19 years old and likely reaching the end of its lifespan. Better, more efficient tankless systems are now available, but at a cost of almost $10,000. We could replace the tank now for just $3,200, but we’d know we’d likely have to replace the boiler within five years, at which time the tank would be obsolete. It made more sense to bite the bullet and spend $10,000 on a new system now, one that would lower our operating costs and last for many years. It was the higher-cost option in the short term but one that will save us money in the long run.

      What government has been doing is replacing the tank—because that’s the cheapest short-term solution—and ignoring the fact that a lot more money will have to be spent in just a few years and monthly bills will be higher than necessary. I wouldn’t spend my own money that way, and it appalls me that the government is doing that with our money and property.

      The ultimatum

      It was clear the project office that the government was willing to fund in 2014 was nothing like the one we’d proposed. We spent a few months trying to negotiate an agreement that would ensure we could continue to consult with school communities and professional consultants to prepare seismic-funding proposals that had strong business cases and worked for their communities. Fassbender told us there would be no negotiating. It was his way or no way, and if we didn’t agree to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that essentially muzzled the VSB and restricted our ability to advocate for more sensible solutions, he would consider spending the $600 million earmarked for VSB seismic projects in other school districts.

      He went so far as to hold a news conference in the summer of 2014 and issue the ultimatum publicly. The last thing we wanted to do was to get between high-risk schools and the money needed to make them safe, so we capitulated under threat of losing the money if we didn’t sign and wrote a letter outlining our concerns. 

      The memorandum of understanding I ended up signing on behalf of the VSB in 2014 expired in the summer of 2017. With no elected board in place then (we were fired in the fall of 2016 for refusing to pass a budget with more cuts), the government-appointed trustee, Dianne Turner, signed on for another three-year agreement, although the document says either party can terminate the agreement with 90 days’ notice. 

      It was—and still is—an awful agreement that took away what little decision-making power the VSB had and gave it all to government. We, the majority of the trustees in the summer of 2014, decided getting the schools poorly upgraded would be a lot better than not getting them upgraded at all. It was the best we could do with Fassbender as minister and the B.C. Liberals in government.

      It was one more example, in my mind, of why we needed a new government.

      The problem

      I’ve been surprised and disappointed by Fleming’s response so far to the Cavell parents’ call for a better approach to dealing with their school. He’s been passing the buck to the VSB, knowing full well it’s completely hamstrung by the terms of the memorandum of understanding.

      The Cavell parents’ angry reaction is totally justified. The VSB trustees, at least those of them who were reelected, should also be furious that they were cut out of the process by government and their own senior managers, who must have known about the plan.

      The solution

      Here’s what needs to happen, and happen fast. There’s zero reason for the NDP government to hold the VSB to an agreement that was signed by the previous government’s appointed VSB trustee and under a nasty B.C. Liberal government ultimatum before that.

      The VSB and Fleming should tear up that MoU and negotiate a new one that respects the board’s role in making local decisions and in consulting with its communities.

      Fleming should direct his ministry staff to stop demanding school boards submit plans for “lowest-cost options” when it’s obvious it will cost taxpayers a whole lot more in the long run than it would if they factored in full life-cycle and operating-cost comparisons. 

      Government also needs to consider what will happen—and what it will cost—after even a moderate earthquake hits the Lower Mainland, if most or all the retrofitted schools are unsafe to reoccupy and have to be demolished and replaced.

      Add up all the money that’s been spent on retrofits, factor in the costs of building replacement schools instead, subtract all the deferred maintenance costs that would be eliminated via new builds, then try to calculate the costs to society and the economy of having dozens of schools out of commission for what could be several years.

      Insisting on cheap retrofits is just boneheaded planning and is taking a reckless gamble with our tax dollars.

      Fleming needs to take action

      Fleming needs to either clean house and get rid of the leftover bureaucrats who are still doing business B.C. Liberal style or give them clear direction that things have to change, immediately.

      He needs to tell cabinet that he’s tossing the Liberals’ playbook when it comes to seismic upgrades and is going to do them properly and invest public dollars responsibly.

      For the most part, I was impressed with Fleming as an education critic. His performance so far as education minister has left him a lot of room for improvement, and I hope to see some of that sooner rather than later.

      I’m also hoping to see the newly elected VSB trustees step up and let government know it is terminating the seismic-project-office memorandum of agreement and wants a new one that works for the VSB and works for communities.

      I’m also disappointed to see the VSB’s failure to consult with Cavell parents and the public about the plans. That never would have flown before the old board’s 2016 firing by the B.C. Liberals. I hope the new trustees commit to a return to meaningful and timely consultation and make sure their managers hear that message loud and clear.

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