Patti Bacchus: The solutions to the VSB’s kindergarten space crunch

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      In what has become a frustrating rite of late winter in Vancouver, hundreds of young families got a rude introduction to the school system last week with news that their kids won’t get kindergarten spots in their local-catchment public schools.

      It’s a growing problem, and it’s one that’s set to get a lot worse if governments at the local and provincial levels don’t get their acts together.

      We’ve already screwed millennials when it comes to the costs of housing in this city. Let’s stop doing it when it comes to their kids’ schools.

      A dozen Vancouver public elementary schools don’t have enough spaces for all the kindergarten kids in their catchment areas. The district is divided into catchments, and families are instructed to register their kids for kindergarten at their catchment schools.

      If there are more applicants than available spaces, they hold a draw to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. Priority goes to applicants with an older sibling in the school.

      It’s not a new issue. Back in the early 2000s, students living in the UBC area were bused to schools in Dunbar and West Point Grey after UBC went on a housing-development spree, resulting in too many kids and not enough spaces at University Hill elementary.

      That particular problem was eventually solved with the opening of Norma Rose Point elementary in 2014, but it dragged on for more than a decade.

      First it was UBC, then Yaletown, downtown, Olympic Village, and more

      Yaletown parents have had to vie for spots at Elsie Roy Elementary ever since it opened, in 2004. They used to line up, sometimes overnight, until the district moved to a lottery-draw system to decide who gets spots (disclosure: I chaired the Vancouver school board when it switched to the lottery system).

      In recent years, parents in the Olympic Village and Cambie Corridor neighbourhoods have also had to compete for spots in their catchment schools—in particular, Simon Fraser elementary on West 16th Avenue, just west of Cambie Street.

      The Vancouver school board's first portable classroom was installed in 1949.
      B.C. Archives

      About 125 “in-catchment” families applied for their kids to start kindergarten at Simon Fraser next September, but there are only 40 spaces available. With many schools in the area also over capacity, waitlisted parents don’t know where their kids will be placed or how they will get them there, as the district doesn’t generally provide busing.

      The problems facing Simon Fraser elementary parents are primarily because when the Olympic Village was built, it was tacked onto the Simon Fraser catchment area, which was meant to be a temporary measure, until the Olympic Village school was built. The city included a school site by Hinge Park in the Olympic Village plan, but despite several years of funding requests from the Vancouver School Board (VSB), the province still refuses to fund its construction.

      Long-standing Ministry of Education policy has been to only fund schools once there’s a school-aged population there to fill it, meaning school boards are left scrambling in the interim. Once the government agrees to fund a school, it can take three years or more to get it built. They don’t fund for growth, so schools can be too small once they’re built.

      Now they’re not even funding schools that have kids ready to enroll, as we’re seeing in the Olympic Village.

      Meanwhile, couples who moved into the Olympic Village years ago and started families are realizing that their livable urban community that seemed so idyllic for young families isn’t very livable at all for those with school-aged kids.

      This year, a new group of parents is joining this unfortunate club: those living in the downtown “Crosstown” neighbourhood who counted on their kids getting into the new school at Abbott Street and Expo Boulevard. Except it’s full too, just a few years after opening.

      It’s a planning fiasco where city planners have created vibrant urban communities where families can live car-free, but the provincial government sees things differently and refuses to fund new schools with enough space for growing populations, or even fund them at all.

      In an ironic twist, the city of Vancouver’s former planning director, Brent Toderian, discovered last week that this kind of uncoordinated planning hits not only close to home but also at his home.

      In a series of tweets, Toderian said his family was frustrated and demoralized to learn his son wouldn’t be able to start kindergarten at the new school—Crosstown—across the street from their downtown home.

      “So instead of walking across the street to the school our little boy sees from his window, we’ll have to commute out of the downtown every day to school. Or ironically consider a private school that’s a close walk. Bad for us. Bad for the public interest. Bad school planning,” Toderian tweeted.

      The problem is bad now, but it could get a lot worse

      wrote about the VSB’s crazy kindergarten crapshoot last fall, and nothing has changed since. Most disappointingly, Education Minister Rob Fleming is giving parents the runaround and refusing to step up with the funding needed to get desperately needed schools built in a timely way.

      I hear the frustration and stress those families are going through. We were lucky when our kids were little. We could walk the few blocks to our neighbourhood school. Our kids made friends in the community, and we often stopped at the local park on the way home for a play. When they got a bit older, they could walk, scooter, or cycle on their own. It was great to be able to give them that independence.

      It would have been a major hassle and expense to get them to a school far from home, and I know how much it would have negatively affected our family’s quality of life.

      Too many families are experiencing what Toderian is now, but if the provincial government and the VSB can’t get their respective acts together to do some proactive planning and building, even more families will be in the same spot once major developments are completed at Oakridge, the Jericho Lands, and the Squamish Nation's Senakw development in Kitsilano.

      Let’s do things differently

      I get that the province has to prioritize capital spending and that there’s pressure to fund major transportation projects, hospitals, and finish dozens of outstanding school seismic-upgrade projects.

      B.C.'s finance minister, Carole James.

      Finance Minister Carole James has to walk a careful line in delivering services communities need, while keeping the province’s credit rating high so we can borrow at low rates. I don’t envy her and I certainly respect her.

      Having said that (and having the luxury of not being responsible for balancing the province’s books), I still think that investing in new school construction is a prudent thing to do—a wise investment, if you will.

      Vancouver is different than other districts in that many of our school sites are small and can’t accommodate portables when school buildings are full, which is how Surrey deals with its school space crunch.

      Portables aren’t usually an attractive option, but there are higher-end, durable, stackable, steel-construction modular units that could be used to quickly assemble new schools where they’re needed, on sites already set aside for schools, like that one at the Olympic Village. They could also make sense for speeding up replacements of seismically high-risk schools.

      Think of it as a big Lego. You add a few pieces where you need them and remove a few and put them somewhere else if your enrollment goes down in one area but increases in another. It could save a ton of money and hassle down the road as Vancouver’s population shifts around the way it always does. We could avoid the VSB’s perpetual problem of having too much space in some parts of town and not enough in others as communities age.

      If the will was there, a modular school could be assembled and ready to open at the Olympic Village in time for the first day of the 2020/21 school year. It wouldn’t solve the problem at some of the other schools, but it would take the pressure off several. The VSB could look for other sites as well, as the city and province have done with temporary modular housing.

      That would take some coordinated, cooperative thinking between the school board, the city, and, most of all, the provincial government. Much as I believe in the value of local democracy and elected school boards, it may be time to think about removing them from the equation and forcing the province to take direct responsibility for making decisions about new school construction, seismic upgrades and replacements, and, yes, even school closures.

      If the government thinks closing schools is a good idea, let them make the decision and take the heat for it instead of pressuring school boards to do their dirty work for them.

      That would put a stop to the buck-passing we see now and the frustrating positions that school boards are in when they have a lot of responsibility but no control over the purse strings. That would stop the education minister and MLAs from giving parents the runaround and blaming the school board for things it has little control over.

      They say the definition of insanity is making the same mistake over and over. Let’s stop the madness and give every family in every community the chance to send their kids to their local school.

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