Patti Bacchus: Are VSB school closures off the table?

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      Just weeks after the Vancouver School Board (VSB) released a draft long-range facility plan (LRFP) that struck school-closure fears into the hearts of several communities, Education Minister Rob Fleming announced new capital-planning guidelines for school boards that appear to remove pressure to close “underutilized” schools.

      Does this mean school closures are off the table? Maybe, but maybe not.

      Fleming’s April 12 letter to school boards announces a “new approach” to long-term capital planning and says the government has removed the B.C. Liberals’ 95 percent utilization requirements and that the changes will give school boards more “flexibility and autonomy”.

      While former B.C. Liberal education minister Mike Bernier actually removed the 95 percent requirement in September 2016, the Liberal government still demanded school boards show how they would “optimize” their capacity use by putting more kids into fewer school buildings, resulting in school closures. The message was blunt in those days: don’t ask for money for new schools where you need them until you fill up the schools you have. If you can’t fill them up, then close some. And don’t ask for money to seismically upgrade a school if there is space elsewhere for its students.

      Fleming’s April 12 letter tells boards their long-range facility plans (LRFPs) should have a broader focus than they’ve had in the past and should include more than just projected school enrollment and capacity utilization. Rather, they should now include consideration of programming, changing demographics, childcare, and community use of schools.

      School boards won’t have to have their long-range (10-year) facility plans approved by government under the new guidelines. Instead of being used to make a case for funding requests, they will be “broad, visioning documents” to guide local discussions of how school districts will use their properties and buildings.

      In what reads like a direct message to current VSB management, which states in its own draft LRFP that government doesn’t require public consultation on the plans, Fleming makes it clear that “robust community consultation is vital to a successful LRFP.” Amen to that.

      He goes so far as to lay it out for them: “Consultation with the community, especially local Indigenous communities, is a key requirement and will help boards develop plans that reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.” Fleming’s new guidelines explicitly state consultation must also include students, parents, community agencies, local government, First Nations, business interests, and all other engaged members within the educational communities. I’d assumed anyone tasked with running a large school district would already know that, but I’d assumed wrong in the case of the VSB’s new managers, as it turns out. So good on Fleming for making it clear.

      It’s a refreshing shift from the old government, which used to criticize the VSB for consulting too much, back in the days when I chaired the board. I begged to differ, of course. Public schools and their sites belong to their communities, and communities must have a say in their future. In my experience, taking the time to consult in a meaningful way was always enlightening and often led to better paths forward in tackling challenges the VSB faced.

      The current VSB and its managers' approach to consultation generally consists of invitation-only closed-door meetings with its selected “stakeholders” (employee-group representatives and district parent-advisory-council and student-council representatives) and the odd generic email address for the rest of us to send input. It tends to schedule little in the way of meaningful public engagement with broader communities, although it ended up adding a couple of sessions on the LRFP revisions in response to public pressure and backlash.

      Was Fleming blindsided by the VSB’s draft LRFP and its threat of school closures?

      When the VSB released its draft long-range facility plan in late February, I, along with several others, reminded the NDP government and the education minister of the strong stance they took against school closures while they were in opposition. I was surprised nothing seemed to have changed and that school districts were still required to submit LRFPs under the old rules, which emphasized filling up schools to maximum capacity and closing those with extra room.

      For districts like Vancouver and Richmond, which are both going through a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming LRFP revision process—that was still required up until last week—it was inevitable that the fear (and likelihood) of school closures would rear its head again. The VSB’s draft LRFP is 177 pages long and took months of work by senior staff and consultants to complete. Richmond’s draft document is more than 200 pages long, and they’re in the midst of a comprehensive public-engagement process.

      How on earth did Fleming and his staff let this process go so far before telling school boards changes were coming and they were no longer required to follow the Liberals’ guidelines? How much time and money was wasted and how much work will now have to be done to revise these lengthy, complex documents?

      Sure, better late than never, but really? What took so long?

      Does Fleming have a staff problem?

      It was clear to me the VSB and government were on a collision course when I went to the VSB committee meeting in late February when they released their draft LRFP. I was dumbfounded by what sounded to me like a lengthy lecture on the need to close schools by VSB secretary treasurer David Green. In a long, rambling statement, Green cautioned that government wouldn’t upgrade all the seismically high-risk schools, so not closing some would put some kids’ safety at risk. It was quite something and made me wonder if Green ever paid attention to what the NDP and Fleming said about school closures when they were in opposition.

      Fleming sounded like he was caught off guard in media interviews about the threat of VSB school closures, insisting his government wasn’t pressuring school boards to close schools and that it was committed to funding new schools and upgrading or replacing seismically unsafe ones. He didn’t seem to grasp that his own ministry’s rules for school board LRFPs and capital-planning submissions forced school boards to show how they were “optimizing” their space use, based on miserly and outdated formulas.

      That went on for several painful and awkward weeks in early March, and on a few occasions I found myself on the radio explaining what the problem was and trying to figure why Fleming didn’t seem to know what was going on in his own ministry.

      In my day at the VSB, Ministry of Education staff took a hardline approach to the VSB. They insisted the district had “10,000 empty seats” (it does not) and needed to deal with those before asking for funds to build schools where they’re badly needed or to seismically upgrade ones with surplus space.

      If the same folks are still working for the ministry, Fleming may not be getting the kind of support and information he needs. He shouldn’t have been caught off guard about the threat of closures in Vancouver—it was inevitable without a change to his ministry’s rules. That caused headaches for his colleagues who are Vancouver MLAs and a massive waste of time and money for cash-strapped school boards who have better things to be doing with both.

      A big but

      It all sounds rosy now, but it’s not. School boards can have nice meetings with everyone and dream about the ideal use of school space and whether surplus areas should be used for specialized programming, childcare, or community uses. But when it comes to large, old buildings that could be deathtraps during an earthquake, Fleming needs to be clear about who is going to pay for seismic upgrades and how projects will be prioritized.

      Given last year’s fiasco in which government approved building an elementary school in Coal Harbour but then quickly changed its position to say the VSB would have to pay for the school by selling underground rights in Vancouver’s West End to B.C. Hydro (which required demolishing Lord Roberts Annex, which may or may not be replaced after B.C. Hydro builds an underground substation adjacent to the Lord Roberts Annex site), I remain skeptical that Fleming’s new guidelines will inoculate communities against the threat of school closures.

      The inconvenient reality is that it costs more to keep all buildings open than it does to consolidate into fewer. Not a heck of a lot more, mind you, but some more. There are ways to recover costs for community use, and there’s a good argument that there are other, nonfinancial costs to closing (the ripping-the-heart-out-of-the-community argument, which is also valid.

      That becomes a problem when school-board finance departments start crunching numbers at budget time and look for ways to save money without compromising services to students. Without increased operating funds, there will be managers advising their boards that closing old, poorly maintained schools will save operating funds that could be redirected to staffing and classroom resources.

      And Fleming isn’t the only one with staff who still think like B.C. Liberals when it comes to bottom-line thinking, above what’s best for kids and communities. I worked with progressive senior managers at the VSB who would have welcomed Fleming’s new approach and found creative ways to keep neighbourhood schools thriving without being a drag on the district’s bottom line. Unfortunately, those folks have moved on, and some who’ve replaced them seem to have sipped some of the austerity Kool-Aid that was served by the former government.

      It will be interesting to see if they change approach or keep advising trustees that closures are necessary.

      I went to the VSB facilities-committee meeting last night (April 17) to find out how they were going to respond to Fleming’s changes. The two-hour meeting stretched into more than five confusing hours where not a whole lot was clarified or decided, aside from an agreement at the committee level to remove a recommendation in their draft LRFP that staff develop a list of schools for potential closure in September (it still needs to be approved by the full board on April 29).

      That’s a reprieve, at best, but a welcome one for many communities. David Green wasn’t at the meeting, so I don’t know if he’s changed his position that not closing some schools will put some children at risk of still being in unsafe schools when the seismic-mitigation program ends. He’s already made comments and a tweet about poorly maintained buildings creating operating-budget pressures, so stay tuned.

      The problem is how complicated—and expensive—it will be to seismically upgrade or rebuild every high-risk VSB school and to build new schools in parts of the city that need them. In many cases, a simple solution is to rebuild them to the size that’s needed. That leaves the other issue of finding temporary accommodation for school populations when their schools are going through seismic upgrades and they need to move out for the duration. Closed schools are a convenient solution to that, especially since the last government stopped funding portables for that purpose.

      If Fleming isn’t providing school districts with a commitment to pay to upgrade all schools that need it, and funds for temporary relocation, he’s just backing away from the complex challenge of dealing with an aging stock of poorly maintained and often unsafe buildings and putting it all on cash-strapped school boards to figure it out. He needs to do better. His letter and new guidelines are a positive step, but only that.

      Without firm funding commitments, the threat of school closures will continue to hang in the air—primarily over East Vancouver.

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