Patti Bacchus: Political gamesmanship is holding up the Olympic Village School

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      Almost a decade after the games wrapped up, parents in the Olympic Village community are calling for an end to the political gamesmanship between the provincial government and the Vancouver School Board (VSB) so their kids can go to school in their own community.

      If I were them, I’d be livid at the excuses and inaction at both levels of government, and especially at Education Minister Rob Fleming.

      I found myself in the middle of similar battles during my time as VSB chair when the former B.C. Liberal government dragged its feet on funding projects like Crosstown Elementary or major seismic upgrades and school rebuilds. In those days, the VSB would join forces with parents to publicly pressure government for funding, and we usually got it—eventually.

      While polite, backroom discussions can get some things done, when it comes to securing funding for big, expensive projects that aren’t government priorities, I learned that the way to get it done is to go public with the pressure, which is what the VSB needs to be doing.

      Olympic Village high-rises.
      Stephen Hui

      Its meek efforts thus far are getting nowhere and leaving busy and increasingly stressed-out parents of preschoolers on their own to advocate for a school for their community.

      The VSB identified an elementary school at the Olympic Village as a capital-funding priority more than a decade ago and submitted it as one of several capital-funding requests to government. The district continues to ask it as part of its capital-funding priority list. With several large new buildings nearing completion in the neighbourhood, the need for the school increases each year.

      When I chaired the VSB, there was no doubt in my mind that the new, family-friendly community would be popular with young parents and the day would come that they would really need an elementary school.

      All the pieces were in place from the beginning—a variety of housing options, a beautiful location, two large childcare centres, a community centre, parks, shops, and everything families need to live a lovely, car-free, urban lifestyle—except for a school.

      When the city approves development, its job is to make sure there’s a site set aside for a school if one will be needed. They did that at the Olympic Village, but funding school construction is the province’s responsibility. The VSB is stuck in the middle, waiting for government to give the project the nod, and families living in the Olympic Village are bearing the brunt of the government’s stalling games and wondering if they’re going to have to move elsewhere or buy cars when their kids start school.

      Let the games end

      Not only is the VSB leaving parents to fight this battle on their own through its own lack of advocacy for the school, those same parents are getting conflicting messages from the VSB and Fleming, and they’re understandably frustrated.

      One of them shared an email with me that they’d sent to George Heyman—the environment and climate change minister and MLA for Vancouver-Fairview—after talking with Fleming at a September 18 event in Vancouver about urban planning in education.

      They said in the email they were concerned about contradictions in what they hearing from the VSB and Fleming. For example, the VSB says Fleming is no longer requiring it to close schools to get capital funding (and Fleming has said so publicly), but parents told Heyman by email that Fleming told them he disagreed with that. Wait, what?

      The parents’ email to Heyman also says that although the VSB promised that proceeds from its sale of underground land rights at Lord Roberts Annex in the West End to B.C. Hydro last year will only be used for school projects downtown (the funds are earmarked to pay for a school in Coal Harbour and to rebuild the Roberts annex once the B.C. Hydro substation is completed), Fleming told them the VSB could use some of the Hydro money to build the Olympic Village School—which is outrageous—and claimed there will be “no need” to replace the Roberts annex. Holy smokes.

      Vancouver School Board
      Martin Dunphy

      If Fleming said this, and I can’t imagine why the parents would say he did if he didn’t—(I asked Fleming’s staff on September 30 to have him call me and let me know if he did or didn’t say it, but I’m still awaiting his call)—it’s particularly egregious in that when the VSB agreed to go ahead with the controversial B.C. Hydro  substation deal, board chair Janet Fraser said VSB 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.”

      Debate around the VSB board table at the time of the Roberts Annex substation sale suggested that if the board went along with the deal, the government had implied it would be more forthcoming with funding for future capital projects. What a sad joke that turned out to be.

      I also asked the minister’s office whether any funding is in place for the Olympic Village school (apparently not). When I asked these questions, I was thinking of the desperate parent I spoke to who has a one-year old and a four-year old and who needs to make decisions about where to try to enroll her child for kindergarten and whether her family will have to think about moving away from a home and a community they love.

      She and families like her deserve straight answers from the government, and in particular from the education minister. They’re not getting any. I’d be fit to be tied if I were in their position.

      I like a lot of what the provincial government is doing, but I thought Fleming would be a better education minister than he’s turning out to be. I hope that changes. If he really can’t get the Treasury Board to approve funding for the long-overdue Olympic Village school, or if he doesn’t believe Olympic Village families deserve to have a school in their community, the least he could do is be forthright about it instead of trying to punt the issue back over to the school board.  

      A parent I spoke with this week said Fleming told parents in her community the VSB should send Olympic Village kids to Crosstown Elementary, which is over by Chinatown. Never mind the idea of telling primary school kids to walk over the Cambie Street bridge to school, Fleming also knows darn well the VSB’s enrollment projections show Crosstown will be full of in-catchment kids in just a couple of years. Then what? Kick the Olympic Village kids out? And where would they go? Good grief.

      Lord Roberts Annex, West End.

      All of this is also a massive betrayal of the West End community, which was promised that the proceeds from the Roberts Annex substation deal would stay downtown and that Roberts Annex would be rebuilt with some of the substation sale proceeds. If the plan was to demolish it and not replace it, the VSB would have had to go through a formal school-closure process, and it didn’t, because the plan is to rebuild the school. Or is it?

      It’s also a betrayal of the VSB, which agreed to the substation deal on the condition it could use the proceeds for the Coal Harbour school and the Roberts annex rebuild with the understanding that if they took the heat for this decision,  government would be more forthcoming with money for other projects.

      It’s the sort of duplicity I grew to expect from the B.C. Liberal government when I chaired the VSB, but despite how jaded I am, I’m still shocked Fleming is playing the same game. It was bad enough when he reneged on government’s commitment and responsibility to fund the Coal Harbour school, but suggesting the VSB also pay the costs of the Olympic Village School, by diverting funds from the West End, is something else altogether.

      While Fleming plays games, young families suffer

      While Fleming refuses to answer questions and gives parents what sounds to me like blatantly misleading information, dozens of young families in the Olympic Village have hard decisions to make. The best they can hope for is to secure a spot in their catchment school, which is a long walk up a steep hill, at Simon Fraser Elementary on 16th Avenue, just west of Main.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming

      It’s about a half hour walk each way. For a parent to walk their child to kindergarten and return to pick them up, that’s at least two hours of walking a day. If you’ve ever walked a tired kindergartener up a long hill on a rainy day, you’ll know that what takes an adult half an hour can stretch into something much longer. Now add in a stroller and a cranky toddler in tow—and heaven forbid that parent has to find a way to get to work as well.

      And that’s their best hope at the moment. By no means are they guaranteed to get into Fraser, even though it’s their designated catchment school. There are way more school-aged kids in the Fraser catchment area than there are spaces, so getting a spot literally requires winning a lottery for the few seats available each year.

      If they aren’t one of the lucky lottery winners who get those two hours of exercise walking up and down the hill to and from Fraser elementary each day, they could be faced by having to get their kids to schools that are even farther away from their community. For some, the means they’ll have to buy cars they don’t want and may not be able to afford, or consider moving.

      This is also affecting families beyond the Olympic Village: you could live across the street from Fraser Elementary and not get a spot and be sent to a school farther away because all kids in the catchment have to enter the lottery (unless they already have an older sibling at the school).

      Sending kids out of catchment not only creates immense stress for busy families juggling transportation and childcare, it also divides communities as kids on the same street end up going to different schools and miss out on the community-building that comes from walking to school in your own neighbourhood.

      All of this mess comes back to the government’s refusal to fund a school everyone knows is needed.

      Enough is enough

      Fleming and the VSB need to sit down together with Olympic Village parents, get their stories straight, then come up with a plan and a timeline for getting the school built.

      They could fast-track the school using prefabricated modular construction, which would allow for the school to be expanded, or reduced, if the population changes down the road. If they got to work now and made it a priority, a school could be ready to open next September.

      I wouldn’t bet on it happening, however, which sucks. It would take will, and I don’t see any sign of anything resembling that coming from either the VSB or the provincial government. Those parents who thought they’d found the ideal, environmentally sustainable community in which to raise their kids have been forsaken—by both levels of government.

      They need the VSB on their side, demanding government take responsibility for funding this project, just like it did in June with $88.6 million for two new schools in Premier John Horgan’s riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca. As Horgan said of the announcement, “schools are at the heart of the community”.

      I hope the government decides to end its games and give the Olympic Village community the school—and heart—it deserves.

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