By Noel Herron
Jim Meschino, the Vancouver School Board’s Director of Facilities, writing recently to planning staff at City Hall reported, “…. tremendous population growth in Vancouver’s downtown peninsula.” As a result, all four of Vancouver’s downtown schools are currently at full or over capacity, with worse to come.
Lord Roberts Elementary on Bidwell St. in the West End, is packed to the gills with 470 students. Classes have spilled over to displace much-needed adult education programs in an adjoining building. Dropped from the VSB inner city list three years ago due to chronic provincial underfunding, Roberts has serious health problems, particularly mental health issues, that are unattended.
Lord Roberts Annex on Nelson St. is a small Kindergarten to Grade 3 facility with 147 students. It Is so crowded it’s unable to accommodate some of the overflow from the newer Elsie Roy School. It too has lost its inner city status and ongoing cutbacks have compromised primary teachers’ abilities to meet diverse needs of their students.
King George Secondary on Barclay St. in the West End is the sole high school on the downtown peninsula and serves 498 students. But it’s overwhelmed with new student applicants. Those unable to gain entrance to King George are fanning out to seventeen other city high schools. Some even cross the Lions Gate Bridge to West Van and North Van. King George’s population is expected to explode to 800 in the next few years. Built in 1963, the school needs to be seismically upgraded. The VSB argues that an additional new high school is urgently needed in the Downtown area.
Elsie Roy Elementary is Located on Drake St in the heart of Yaletown. This new K-7 school (opened in 2004) accommodates 420 students. Even before the first shovel hit the ground in 2003 Elsie Roy was full to capacity forcing the VSBto add four additional classrooms in 2011. 84 preschoolers sought admission to kindergarten in September 2012 with no room for 39 of them. Currently some kids cross bridges to schools in Kitsilano. Another new elementary school is urgently needed to accommodate Yaletown’s exploding population.
International Village Elementary School is yet to be built. For the past 10 years - Yes, 10 years! – the VSB has considered a draft plan to build a school on the southeast corner of the Tinseltown complex to accommodate 510 students - 60 Kindergarten and 450 grades 1 to 7. The Board has been stymied at every turn, despite vociferous complaints about foot dragging fromYaletown parents. The plan is now being “accelerated” with scheduled opening in September 2015 unless other provincial “obstacles” arise along the way.
Lord Strathcona School is not quite in the Downtown area, but is referenced in the Meschino letter to City Hall. Located in the Downtown East Side Strathcona now receives some of the spillover students from Elsie Roy. Four years ago, thanks to cutbacks, it lost its sole pre-kindergarten class for vulnerable 4-year-olds. Strathcona is the oldest school in the province and for over 11 years has been a top candidate for high risk seismic upgrading. Recently, yet another phoney “reassessment” was demanded by Victoria.
Repeated requests over a dozen years or more by the VSB to the Ministry of Education to plan ahead have been deferred or summarily rebuffed by an arrogant and indifferent Victoria bureaucracy.
Victoria’s bureaucrats intransigently insisted on their infamous “bums in seats” policy before expanding construction in enrollment hot spots. Adherence to this astounding, some would say absurd, policy means students have to be in place, in crowded conditions, before official authorization is granted to proceed with planning for a new school. Even when planning permission is granted, the process is dogged by interminable discussions, dithering, and lack of a firm financial commitments.
Repeatedly provincial pressuring of the VSB to close schools in other parts of the city before considering opening a new school where it was needed not only unnecessarily delayed advance planning in the downtown area, but also caused unprecedented uproar and parental anguish in the schools on the east side thatwere slated for closing. Fortunately the Board was convinced by public pressure to save those schools.
Since the Liberals came to power in 2001 they have shuttered an astounding 200 schools across the province. They are unable, more likely unwilling, to provide an official record of the exact number of schools closed. The provincial picture is far too embarrassing so it is left to others to do the closure count. The latest BCTF estimate is 197 schools.
No one questions the gradual decline in enrollment numbers across the province, but the BC Liberals allowed the provincial closure juggernaut to roll on for a decade, unimpeded, ripping the heart out of many small rural communities.
Now, the City of Vancouver is projecting a sharp upsurge of 7,200 residents moving into the already densely populated downtown peninsula – many with young families. The VSB conservatively projects school aged population in the downtown core to increase by more than 1,000 students by 2019. The overcrowding and lack of advance planning, without support and co-operation from Victoria, will create an even more overcrowded landscape over the next six years.
When it comes to building new schools, to accommodating overflow enrollment with additions to existing buildings, or seismically upgrading older schools for safety reasons, the BC Liberals have left many kids and their parents in the downtown area (and, for that matter, 41 other high risk Vancouver schools) out in the cold – a shameful legacy for a provincial government after twelve years in office.
Noel Herron is a former inner city principal and VSB trustee