Patti Bacchus: Why we don’t need to close schools

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      Here we go again. Vancouver parents and students are—once again—wondering if their beloved schools will close by the end of next school year, following the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) release last Friday of a draft “long-range facility plan”.

      The plan recommends up to 28 VSB schools be “analyzed” for closure or consolidation as part of a process to reduce the number of student seats in the district.

      If this sounds painfully familiar, it is. This time it’s a Bizarro World version, with the B.C. Liberals’ education critic, Dan Davies, hammering Education Minister Rob Fleming in the legislature earlier this week about school closures when just a couple of years ago it was Fleming swinging the hammer at the B.C. Liberals about the same thing. When Davies read back Fleming’s own 2015 statements about school closures during question period Monday, Fleming made a clumsy attempt to change the subject to the provincial budget instead of answering Davies's questions. It was a cringeworthy performance, to say the least. As the kids used to say when they still used twitter, #Awkward.

      The B.C. Liberal government used to slam the VSB for having “10,000 empty seats” (debatable) and for not closing schools in East Vancouver, which, coincidentally, tended to be made up of NDP-held ridings. When the VSB named several schools in Adrian Dix’s riding to be considered for closure in 2010 and 2016, Dix, who is now B.C.’s health minister, led vigorous campaigns to save them.

      During the raucous VSB closure meetings in the fall of 2016, just before the B.C. Liberal government fired the board I was on, Fleming and Dix were frequent and familiar faces at rallies and meetings about school closures. How things have changed.

      Fleming had strong words about closures in 2016, including in an online video, in which he accuses the B.C. Liberal government of pressuring school boards to close schools and “abandon neighbourhoods by taking schools right out of the heart of those communities”. Now he’s claiming his government isn’t pressuring the VSB to close schools, but that’s not the whole truth, from what I can see.

      As the VSB’s draft facilities plan notes, the Ministry of Education requires school boards to produce such plans that show how they’re “optimizing” the space they have. If they have more seats than bums to fill them, they’re supposed to show how they’re going to get rid of them. Therein lies the problem.

      Fortunately, I have a solution that makes sense and is way better for kids and communities than taking away and, heaven forbid, selling off their neighbourhood schools.

      The problem

      The Education Ministry’s parsimonious algorithm to determine how much space schools should have is based on how many kids attend the school. It’s a controversial formula that counts rooms like elementary art rooms as empty if they were originally designed to be classrooms. The same goes for music rooms, spaces used to work with students with special needs, and often rooms that are rented out to community organizations. You can go into schools and see every room in use and then read a report that says it’s only at 75 percent “capacity utilization”.

      It’s understandable that a government like the B.C. Liberals, which pushed an austerity mindset when it came to funding public schools (while its leader sent her kid to an expensive private school with lush grounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, and hallways decorated with grand pianos), would have stupid rules like this, but why hasn’t it changed under the NDP government?

      VSB managers are framing the “problem” as one that says because there is surplus space in some schools, they can’t get kids into seismically safe schools fast enough.

      It’s a specious argument but they keep repeating it, and the VSB managers’ report includes an ominous warning (on page 174) of the “Consequences of Not Reducing Surplus Capacity”, saying “Should the VSB decide to continue operating its current inventory of schools in the context of past and ongoing enrolment decline, the district will arrive at a time when many thousands of our students attend unsafe schools while many of our seismically safe schools are operating well below optimal utilization levels.” That’s a dramatic overstatement, and it assumes far too much.

      In fairness to the VSB managers, they’re hamstrung by Fleming’s ministry rules for capital planning, which say that “school districts experiencing continued declining or shifting enrolments should reduce the inefficient use of school facilities through facility consolidation [school closures].”  Yet Fleming disingenuously told reporters this week there’s no government pressure for the VSB to close schools. That simply does not compute.

      If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that rules are made to be broken, and changed. Fleming and the VSB need to focus on making better rules instead of closing schools.

      Get it right by right sizing

      If there are, indeed, schools with surplus classrooms no one needs—and where those buildings are in poor condition and in urgent need of a seismic upgrade—they should be replaced with ones that are the size that’s needed, with energy-efficient, seismically safe buildings. That prevents what the NDP repeatedly warned about when it was in Opposition: tearing the heart out of communities by closing their schools.

      Building replacement schools is cost-effective. Most elementary schools can be rebuilt for less than $20 million and, if done right, can serve generations of students for a century or more. That’s darn good value. Investing in infrastructure is a smart policy and could be a boost to local economies at a time when the real-estate market is cooling and the construction industry is slowing down. With interest rates still being relatively low, this is an opportunity for the Horgan government to leave a lasting legacy that’s a built commitment to how much it cares about families, communities, and public services.

      Do it soon

      Vancouver’s a tough enough city to raise kids in without having to fight for your school’s survival every few years. Just seeing your kids’ school names in the VSB report is enough to cause stress and anxiety for families who rely on their neighbourhood schools for childcare, education, and ease of access. The VSB plan throws a lot of uncertainty into their lives, and that’s stress no one needs.

      Fleming needs to shut this down quickly and assure Vancouver families that he’ll work with the VSB to ensure that school closures don’t “gut” (that’s the word used in the NDP’s petition against school closures from their Opposition days) their neighbourhoods and communities.

      He needs to come up with a plan to fund new schools where they’re needed, upgrade seismically unsafe ones, and to give the VSB latitude to use surplus space to support school programs or rent it out to community groups. He needs to rewrite the B.C. Liberal-era rules that tell school districts they need to jam more kids into fewer buildings.

      The VSB needs to get its act together too

      The VSB posted the plan on its website late last Friday afternoon, complete with errors and omissions that created a lot of unnecessary confusion for reporters and members of the public who were trying to figure out which schools might be at risk of eventual closure. The report is clear as mud, and things didn’t get much clearer this week.

      I was disappointed at the pro-closure tone by the report’s staff, as I’ve always believed professional staff should present information, data, and recommendations but lay off the editorializing and lecturing. What was also notably—and shockingly—absent was any public-consultation process prior to the trustees voting on whether or not to approve the plan in April.

      The report says the Ministry of Education doesn’t require public consultation “to inform” the development of a long-range facility plan. Good grief, I’m old enough to remember when the VSB chair (me and my predecessors) ensured proper processes were in place to ensure all trustees could get all the information they needed to make informed decisions. Public consultation was a key part of that, especially for something as major as planning the future—or lack thereof—of the city’s public schools. When it comes to the future of city schools, we’re all “stakeholders” and we all deserve the chance to have a say if we’d like one.

      It’s also the VSB’s job to be standing up for the people and communities it represents and ensuring that students, present and future, have the best schools possible in their neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s population will continue to grow as the city densifies, and having vibrant schools in every community is something trustees need to fight for, instead of caving to ministry bureaucrats’ demands that they prove they’re operating the district fiscally responsibly by closing down beloved schools that have served communities for generations.

      If I was still VSB chair, I’d be right out in front of this, telling Fleming he needs to change ministry rules and direct his bureaucrats to stop putting school districts through this painful, time-consuming, and expensive process. Heck, I’m not even the chair anymore, and that’s what I’ve been doing all week. My question is, why the silence from the VSB trustees and board chair? Hello, anybody there? It’s not my job any more, but someone needs to do it.

      Surplus space in schools is not a problem—it’s an opportunity

      Closing a school in East Vancouver won’t magically get one built in the Olympic Village or Surrey. The Horgan government should use the opportunity of both enrollment growth in some parts of the city and seismically unsafe schools with extra space in the others to show how much it values public education and communities. What an opportunity to differentiate this government from the last.

      If Fleming moves quickly and puts a stop to the VSB’s misguided plan to consider closing multiple schools and rewrites his ministry’s rules, it will save a lot of families a lot of unnecessary stress. It would send a strong message that the NDP still stands for what it claimed to when it was in Opposition. Over to you, Minister Fleming. You have an opportunity. Don’t squander it.

      Note: following the February 27 VSB facilities and planning committee meeting, where several committee members complained about the absence of a public-consultation process, the VSB tweeted: “We heard and listened. In addition to sharing your feedback to LRFP@vsb.bc.ca, we heard you wanted more engagement opportunities. There are plans to engage with the public in April, before the April 17 Facilities and Planning Committee. Follow us @VSB39 to get up to date info.”

      That doesn’t leave much time, given that the district shuts down for the last two weeks of March for spring break. If you want a chance to speak directly to trustees, I suggest emailing the board’s secretary treasurer at dgreen@vsb.bc.ca and asking to be put on the agenda to speak at next week’s (March 6) facilities committee meeting. It’s a public meeting and it starts at 6:30 p.m. at the VSB office at Broadway and Fir Street.

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

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