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Independent school lobbying behind call to close schools: Bacchus

One possible reason B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender is advocating school districts consider closing under-populated schools, says Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus, is because the Federation of Independent School Associations (FISA) is lobbying him for access to board buildings.

"[FISA] are registered lobbyists, and I believe that is actually listed in their requests [to government]," Bacchus told The Tyee in a telephone interview this morning.

"And we've heard that from [government]; they've asked us before about space. If they have support from a lot of the independent school supporters, which I suspect this government probably does, they can't give them the space if the space hasn't been vacated."

Fassbender suggested that the district close or repurpose schools in late November after Bacchus, representing the Vancouver School Board, wrote a letter to the minister asking for an increase in education funding.

An online search of the province's Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists website shows FISA did lobby the government in 2010, 2012, and 2013 for things like resources similar to what public schools receive through the Learning Improvement Fund, property tax exemption, and adult education funding.

FISA executive director Peter Froese says the association always asks school districts first for access to unused or underused schools for the independent schools they represent. Provincial policy dictates boards have control over the rental and sale of district property.

But when districts refuse, FISA will lobby the provincial government on a school's behalf for access to the space.

"If there is no movement, then we'll certainly try to lobby the ministry of education or the resources department within the department of education, to see if there's some way that we can get access to unused properties," he said.

"But by and large, there is no mechanism in place that would allow an independent school to go to the ministry of education and have them negotiate through the board of education on our behalf."

Froese would like to see an appeals process for independent schools that are refused use of public school space, adding it's beneficial for both the independent school and the district to give space to independent schools because it means extra revenue for the district.

"Whether [parents are] choosing public or independent schools, that doesn't matter to us. We believe very strongly there has to be a very strong public education system in our province as well... not everybody can afford to go to an independent school because there's tuition involved," he said.

FISA currently has a poll on its website that asks, "Should independent schools be allowed to lease or purchase public school space that is not being used by public education?" So far, 57 people have responded (including this reporter in order to see the results), with 74 per cent of respondents opposed to the idea.

Bacchus says although some schools seem under-utilized, they're at least necessary to the Vancouver district. Last year the board made headlines when it declined to renew the lease of board land for the Khasla School, a private Sikh school, because it said it needed the space to put public school students during seismic upgrading of other district buildings.

The introduction of all day kindergarten in 2011 and predictions of increasing school-aged populations in the near future means the Vancouver School Board will be doing all it can to hold onto its buildings.

"It's very difficult to find school sites in Vancouver, and once you have someone else using a space, even if it's on a lease purpose, it's difficult to take that back when you have the need for it," Bacchus said.

"So if we can find shorter term uses that are more flexible, for example seniors programs or even childcares, that have a little more mobility than a school that sets up, that is an approach we've taken."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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