Patti Bacchus: A better and faster way to build schools

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      Vancouver-False Creek could be an easily winnable riding for John Horgan’s NDP. Its lacklustre B.C. Liberal incumbent, Sam Sullivan, should be easy to oust this time. It’s a seat the NDP could really use to secure the majority it craves.

      But good luck to new NDP candidate Brenda Bailey, who is, by all accounts, a strong challenger. Despite Sullivan winning by just 560 votes in 2017, and the riding being a potential easy swing to the NDP, the Horgan government stubbornly refused to fund a long-overdue school for the Olympic Village while it had the chance.

      The Olympic Village community plan designated land beside Hinge Park, at the foot of Columbia Street, for an elementary school. Young families moved into the area thinking they could live a car-free, environmentally friendly lifestyle, with parks, daycares, and public transit nearby.

      They knew a school was part of the plan and that the Vancouver School Board (VSB) has identified building it as one of its capital-plan priorities for years. The city even vowed to fast track its permitting processes to expedite construction. Everything is lined up, including families with kids. All that’s missing is the money to build it.

      B.C. has a dysfunctional system when it comes to new residential developments and schools. Provincial policy boils down to government not funding schools until they see the "whites of the eyes" of school-aged kids lined up at the nonexistent school door—and enough of them to fill the nonexistent school. If there’s space for them in schools within a “reasonable” distance, they’re expected to go to those schools, outside their neighbourhoods.

      Olympic Village and False Creek.
      Wikimedia Commons/Kamiri78

      Which is problematic and bass-ackward enough, as it takes three years or more to get a school built once funding is in place, because these days they don’t even fund the school when the kids are there, whites of their eyes and all.

      Going an extra few kilometres to school may seem fine to folks living in rural communities, where school districts provide busing and everyone drives. If you’re an urban family without a car, it’s a different story. Good luck walking uphill for a few kilometers on a rainy day, with a toddler or two in tow and a kindergartener, or taking public transit with young kids to get to school and then get yourself to work and the others to daycare.

      In the case of the Olympic Village, it got tacked on to the Simon Fraser Elementary catchment area as a temporary measure, or so school-district officials thought, and it’s becoming a permanent problem. And not just for the Village families. There’s so many of them that Fraser doesn’t have enough room, so all families in the Fraser catchment have to enter a lottery to get their kids into kindergarten, even though they live in the catchment area.

      That means those who don’t win a coveted spot at Fraser are having to go to school even farther away, which causes all kinds of stress and problems and blows the utopian urban car-free dream to smithereens.

      Broken portable promises

      Remember 2017, when John Horgan promised to get rid of portables in the Surrey school district? Well, guess what? There are more portables at Surrey schools today than there were when Horgan was sworn in as premier in 2017.

      Portable classroom.
      Wikimedia Commons/Steve Morgan

      Sure, the B.C. Liberals left a massive backlog of expensive school capital projects that needed funding, including seismic upgrades and school replacements. The NDP made some good progress in the past three years, but not nearly enough.

      Building schools is expensive. So is seismically upgrading them. And it’s complicated. What do you do with an entire high-school population while you rebuild a school? Sometimes you try to do it while the students are there, like the VSB did with Van Tech and Kitsilano, but it slows the process and is a bit of a nightmare for those trying to teach and learn during construction.

      And how do you justify building a school in the Olympic Village when the VSB has space for thousands of kids in schools in other parts of the city and while Surrey is over capacity everywhere?

      I have a solution

      If you read my columns, you may have heard this idea before. One of the challenges of managing school facilities is that populations move and shift. People tend to have smaller families in the city, and enrollment has slowly and steadily declined in some communities while it’s exploding in others due to residential development.

      We saw this happen 15 years ago in Yaletown, when Elsie Roy elementary was full the day it opened. The same movie played at UBC, where students had to be bused to schools in Dunbar and Point Grey for years until Norma Rose Point school was built and University Hill secondary was replaced with a bigger version.

      The next squeeze in Vancouver was downtown, where it took a decade of VSB requests to get funding for Crosstown Elementary, which opened three years ago and is already over capacity and turning local kids away.

      Surrey has the same problem of too much housing development and not enough schools, but at least it has larger school sites and room for portables, which aren’t an option on many VSB sites.

      The solution isn’t building more schools that may turn out to be too small in a couple of years or too big in a generation or two. It’s time to be innovative and build flexible, high-quality, state-of-the-art modular schools that can be expanded or contracted as needed.

      Remember how quickly the city was able to get those temporary modular housing units up a few years ago? If the will was there, and the money, there could be an Olympic Village school ready to go for next September, and Surrey could replace all those musty, wooden portables with high-quality, environmentally sustainable, steel modular buildings.

      Naomi Place, near Trout Lake in Vancouver, is an example of temporary modular housing.
      City of Vancouver

      This makes sense for both the short and long term. Because they’re prefabricated off-site in factory-controlled conditions and can be relatively quickly assembled, it expedites the building processes and eliminates some of the temporary-accommodation challenges associated with seismic replacement projects. If they wanted to be really bold, they could invest in local infrastructure to have them built here in B.C., creating local jobs.

      Large school districts like Surrey and Vancouver could have a stock of modular components that could be redeployed as needed, like huge LEGO pieces, solving the long-term problem of too much school space in some areas and not enough in others. Instead of closing schools that are under capacity, just snap off a few classrooms and move them to where they’re needed.

      The long-term savings could be massive, and families would be assured of school space where they need it, when they need it.

      The system we have isn’t working for B.C. families. Some say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s time to be innovative and do things differently and do them better.

      Instead of a bold plan, NDP leader Horgan kicked off this week’s campaign announcements in Coquitlam with a pledge to complete construction of two schools that have been in the planning stages for years and to have them ready to open in 2023. B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson made pretty much the same promise a couple of weeks ago. Pardon me for yawning.

      When it comes to the B.C. Liberals and the NDP, neither has much to be proud of on this file. A pox on both their houses for leaving so many B.C. families in the lurch.

      I’d love to see the parties give voters who care about our public education something to get excited about—and to stop doing things the same old way and making the same tired promises we know they may or may not keep. Remember when Gordon Campbell promised to have all schools seismically upgraded by 2020? I sure do.

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