Patti Bacchus: Vancouver’s kindergarten crapshoot

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Registration for next year’s Vancouver kindergarten classes opened last Friday (November 1), which—for many parents—means entering a lottery and crossing their fingers.

      For years now, several Vancouver communities have had more kids than they do seats in their local public schools, which means that not everyone will get into their neighbourhood school. That has turned registering for kindergarten into bit of a crapshoot.

      Yaletown families have been competing for spots in Elsie Roy elementary ever since it opened in 2004. Parents used to line up overnight to register for its coveted kindergarten spaces until the VSB moved to a lottery system to determine who the lucky ones were who got to attend the school (disclosure, I chaired the VSB when we decided to move to a lottery system).

      Now several VSB elementary schools are at capacity, when means more parents have to enter a draw to compete for seats in their “catchment” school (the local school, as defined by the school board). The fullest schools now tend to be downtown, around False Creek and along the Cambie Corridor.

      Lottery losers are put on wait lists and offered spots at other schools. Sometimes the school they’re offered is seismically high-risk and far from home.

      The pressure on Elsie Roy was alleviated somewhat when Crosstown Elementary opened at Abbott Street and Expo Boulevard in 2017, but it took government more than a decade to agree to fund the school, after years of pleas from parents and the VSB.

      Not a new problem

      Families living near UBC used to have to vie for spots at their local schools as well, and many were bused to schools in Dunbar and Point Grey for several years while government dragged its heels on funding the new high school that replaced the small old one, along with with Norma Rose Point elementary and middle school, which opened in 2014.

      Now parents in the Olympic Village are facing a similar problem. Their beautiful, environmentally sustainable community, which allows them to live car free, doesn’t have a school, although the city set aside a site for one by Hinge Park. By default, the village is included as part of the Simon Fraser elementary catchment, although the school is way up the hill, on West 16th Avenue and Ontario.

      There aren’t enough spaces at Fraser for neighbourhood kids and the Olympic Village kids, so the VSB draws names to decide who gets a kindergarten spot. If you already have a child in the school, you’re assured entry, as siblings get priority. If you don’t, you could live right across the street and still not get in.

      Most of the nearest schools to Fraser, including False Creek, Hudson, Carr, Cavell, Wolfe and Livingston, are also at—or over—capacity and may have to turn kids in their own catchments away from next year’s kindergarten classes.

      The problem is how—and when—the government decides to fund new schools

      The root of the problem is long-standing provincial government policies and practices that mean new schools don’t get funded until kids are pretty much lined up at the nonexistent door, and every school within a reasonable distance is full. And even then, it’s no sure thing.

      The problem is compounded by government’s miserly formulas for funding new schools and seismic-replacement schools. They don’t provide room for enrollment growth, meaning brand-new schools often end up being too small shortly after they open.

      Surrey parents are well acquainted with this problem. Housing development has far outpaced school construction in the district, so many kids spend years in portable classrooms, waiting for schools to be funded and built.

      At this point, many Olympic Village parents would be delighted to have portables their kids could walk to, but so far, they’re out of luck.

      Simon Fraser is just one of several VSB schools that will turn away in-catchment kids for kindergarten next fall, which may come as an upsetting surprise to many parents, if this year turns out to be like other recent ones.

      The problem will only worsen if and when the Squamish Nation’s 6,000-unit Senakw housing development proceeds in Kitsilano. Schools in the area are full, and there’s no plan to increase the capacity of nearby Henry Hudson elementary to make space for more kids. Unless, of course, government decides to get proactive about its school capital-funding game. I hope it does.

      It doesn’t have to be this way

      They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s time to do things differently.

      Some of us who bore witness to the October 28 public VSB meeting were surprised when board chair Janet Fraser read out a curious statement she attributed to Education Minister Rob Fleming. It came near the end of debate on a proposal to proceed with public consultation on whether or not to close the VSB’s Queen Elizabeth Annex, a small French immersion school on the West Side.

      Fleming’s statement (his office confirmed to me the statement Fraser read is correct) said if the VSB would “transfer” the annex—which would require closing it to VSB enrollment—so it could be used by B.C.’s public Francophone school board, the Conseil scolaire francophone (CSF), he would have “an opportunity to bring forward to government a new school at Olympic Village.” Huh?

      The sounds like pressure from a minister who claims he isn’t pressuring school boards to close schools. It also makes me question why Fleming can’t make the case to the government that the Olympic Village really needs a school, without using it to strong-arm the VSB into closing an annex in the face of fierce community opposition.

      It turns out the board wasn’t having it, and trustees voted to put the brakes on any further talk of closing Queen Elizabeth Annex.

      Start funding new schools in a timely manner

      Finance Minister Carol James has to watch the province’s bottom line and protect B.C.’s credit rating. She has to prioritize demands on the provincial treasury, for everything from major transportation projects to hospitals, schools, and childcare. The former B.C. Liberal government left a massive backlog and the NDP government is working hard to catch up. I get that.

      Government looks at the VSB and sees it has several schools that aren’t full, but those schools are mainly on the east side of the district, and especially the southeast side. That’s a long way from the Olympic Village and really no help at all to families living there. Yet it also has other districts that need schools and lots of seismically high-risk schools to upgrade or replace.

      The VSB hasn’t even been able to get it together and approve a long-range facilities plan (LRFP) to justify its capital-funding requests (although, in fairness, that’s largely because Fleming changed the LRFP rules last spring, and now the VSB has to restart its complex planning process). The VSB is also in last place compared to all school districts when it comes to enrollment growth, yet government is spending hundreds of millions here on seismic upgrades and replacements.

      What government fails to acknowledge, however, is that Vancouver pays more than its share of taxes via the school-tax levy on property tax, submitting more than it gets back in operating funding while most districts only submit about a third of what they get back. That’s because of Vancouver’s dense tax base. Add in revenue from property-transfer taxes and the new school-surtax levy on homes worth more than $3 million, and Vancouver taxpayers have paid for the Olympic Village school several times over.

      A dense community like the Olympic Village is a tax bonanza for provincial coffers and deserves a school. Once that school is built, it will alleviate enrollment pressure on several schools and make life a whole lot more livable and affordable for many families.

      It’s frustrating to watch school-construction costs escalate while school-construction projects that were needed years ago sit on the back burner, waiting for funding. Even worse, busy families are left scrambling and are forced into cars to drive their kids to schools that are too far for walking.

      This Queen Elizabeth Annex case is a little more complicated than the usual school closure in that government wants to solve another problem it inherited from the Liberals, and that’s finding a site for the CSF to build a school. Putting the screws to the VSB to sacrifice one of its schools would save government (and all of us) some money, but they have other options that don’t require forcing the VSB to close one of its schools.

      Fleming’s attempt to influence to VSB’s decision about the annex closure by linking it to the Olympic Village school tells me he can make the Village school a funding priority if he wants to.

      Many young families are caught in the middle. They’ll have to wait until early spring to find out whether they’re lucky lottery winners whose kids get the privilege of attending their neighbourhood schools. Those who aren’t so lucky will have to decide whether to take their chances on wait lists or accept placements in other schools.

      It comes down to a matter of political priorities and whether or not government decides to be proactive about funding new schools where they’re needed.

      Good grief, getting into kindergarten shouldn’t be a crapshoot.

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