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Budget squeeze may lead to Vancouver school closures

The annual staff report to a Vancouver School Board committee this week entitled the “K to 12 Enrolment Update” is neither surprising in its findings nor does it recommend any particular course of action.

The annual staff report to a Vancouver School Board committee this week entitled the “K to 12 Enrolment Update” is neither surprising in its findings nor does it recommend any particular course of action. But the unintended consequences could likely be quite dramatic.  

The report notes a trend that has existed for some time: that East Side schools in particular have far more empty spaces than those on the West Side and downtown.

And, most notably, many of those schools fall well below the provincial expectation that schools have fewer than five per cent of their spaces empty.

In the political environment in which we find ourselves that may trigger actions that could very well lead to school closures and the possible sale of school properties.

Let me explain why.

During the six year period when Vision Vancouver held the majority on school board it supported a moratorium on school closures. In 2010, faced with a budget crunch, the board considered shutting down a number of underutilized schools to help their bottom line.

The number was eventually pared down to five. But on further consultation with the stakeholders, staff recommended a continuation of the moratorium, along with a proposal to find creative ways to utilize any unused school capacity for the benefit of communities.

In the most recent election, as you know, Vision lost its majority on the board. But in one of the first meetings in 2015, with yet another budget crunch looming, one of the four Vision trustees moved a motion to extend the moratorium on closures to 2018. That was defeated by the majority made up of four NPA trustees and the lone Green Party trustee.

The NPA’s Fraser Ballantyne, who apparently saw the merit in closing those five schools back in 2010, now says the NPA had no intention of closing schools, but that the motion was amended so that the board could get more information.

On Wednesday, Ballantyne and the other members of the board’s management coordinating committee (which incidentally has no Vision members) received the most recent enrolment update report.

They would not be the only ones looking at those figures. Just a month ago B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender appointed a “special adviser,” the accounting firm of Ernst and Young, to comb through the board’s books to find efficiencies and reduce costs. There should be no doubt that this report will be a critical element in their figuring.

But there is more.

The province is in tussle with all school boards over its commitment to provide funding to seismically upgrade schools. No board has more seismically challenged buildings than Vancouver.

Yet the ministry most recently announced it would be delaying its deadline on that commitment — doubtless given its own budgetary squeeze and a desire to produce a surplus — until 2030.

Now with Ernst and Young on the job and with this latest enrolment update, imagine the possibility of directing the board to sell off the most vulnerable building providing capital to work on the remaining stock.

There is one other matter: the growing popularity and demands of the private or independent school sector in its search for space in which to grow.

While the Vancouver school board has managed to hold about 85 per cent of the market over the past decade, within the Lower Mainland the number of students attending private schools is growing overall while the public sector is declining.

The last time a public school here was closed and leased to an independent operator was back in 2003.

That however was before Christy Clark was premier and in 2012 created a position to be an advocate to plead their case, parliamentary secretary to the minister of education for independent schools.

Clark has both a personal and political interest in advancing the needs of independent schools. Her child attends one of Vancouver’s elite independent schools.

And no matter what other effects meeting the demands of that’s sector may have on the social fabric of a community, the government saves money on each child moving out of the public system. Most independent school students are funded at a rate of 50 per cent of the public system. Elite school students receive 35 per cent.

In all, it saves the government millions of dollars each year.

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