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BC's Move to 'Big Box' Schools

Parents worry closing small schools hurts kids.

Rob Annandale 7 Sep

Rob Annandale is on staff of The Tyee.

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Students lost in shuffle?

Mark England's youngest daughter is a confident, outgoing nine-year-old who loves gymnastics. But according to her dad, she has been unusually quiet and withdrawn over the past few weeks.

Her Port Moody elementary school was one of five in the Coquitlam school district that did not reopen this week when the summer holidays ended. As a result, her school is now a 10-minute drive away rather than a two-minute walk.

And instead of 150 schoolmates, she now has 350, only one of whom she knows.

"It's the unfamiliarity, the unknown which is a huge factor for any child," according to England, who helped bring an unsuccessful lawsuit against the local school board for its handling of the public consultation process preceding the closure. "The trustees feel kids are resilient but they're not living with the ones who have to go through this."

Five years ago, the same thing happened to England's eldest daughter and the problem is not limited to a single district. Provincially, almost 150 schools have closed since 2002.

Declining enrolment in virtually every district is to blame, according to B.C.'s Ministry of Education. But critics say the government's budget policies are killing small schools and leading to a big-box education model.

Low enrollment in the 1970s did not lead to an epidemic of school closures, according to Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF). The problem today is the result of a student shortage combined with underfunding.

Although closing a school is not always the wrong thing to do, she believes the educational needs of the students need to drive the decision process.

"It's not OK to simply close schools because we have two small schools and people think it's more efficient to bus kids," Lanzinger told The Tyee. "It's not OK to close schools to solve budget problems."

Money matters

There are two major components to school budgets. First, there is the per-student operating funding the provincial government allots to the school boards so they can respond to local needs and keep the schools running as smoothly as possible.

The Ministry of Education says per-student funding -- at just under $8,000 annually -- is at an all-time high.

But this apparent increase is misleading because other expenses, such as maintenance costs and staff salaries, do not necessarily go down with the drop in students, according to Greater Victoria school board trustee Charley Beresford. All the more so, she says, because the current government has downloaded many such expenses onto the boards. She cites the 2002 collective agreement that gave teachers a 7.5 per cent pay increase, much of which the boards had to cover. Her district still has not been able to reinstate some of the programs it had to cut when scrambling to come up with an extra $9 million.

Beresford objects to the very notion of basing funding on the number of students in schools, a formula that rewards the consolidation of schools. The old formula may have been complicated -- it took into consideration a number of variables such as geographic location, heating, and the school's age -- but by taking account of a number of factors that remain constant regardless of enrolment, it offered some protection against the vagaries of demographic trends.

"In trying to streamline, they came up with something that forced closures,' she told The Tyee.

Selling off schools

The other key part of the budget is capital funding, dependent on Victoria's approval for building new schools, renovating and expanding existing ones, and adding to the school bus fleet.

Districts can supplement their capital funding by selling "redundant assets" such as the land and buildings of closed schools.

But the Union of B.C. Municipalities does not like the provincial government's requirement that districts sell their property at fair market value. In its view, communities should get a leg up on developers in order to recycle the public land for enhancement projects, such as seniors' facilities or low-cost housing.

Another problem, according to BCTF's Lanzinger, is that selling schools provides one-time money whereas leasing it out offers an ongoing source of revenue for the operating budget.

So the piece-by-piece sale of schools saves the province from having to fork over more bucks for improvements but it can limit future options for districts.

"There's no question the school districts' motivations are not the same as the province's when it comes to new schools and disposing of old ones," according to Richard Stewart, a Coquitlam city councilor and president of the district's parent advisory council.

Outside the (big) box

Stewart has also gone through the heartache of seeing the school two of his kids attended shut down for good. But his experience was quite different from England's.

"I didn't want it to close but when it did, my kids had a better learning environment," he told The Tyee. "Some parents get mad at me for saying this but it's true."

When a school is two-thirds empty, as his children's was, the issue is not one of funding, he said. The focus should be on preventing enrolment from dipping so low a school can no longer function, rather than demanding more government funding.

So what is the solution?

"We've been trying to get parents to have more kids," he laughed before explaining that neighbourhood densification is the key.

In a context where a single family home in Coquitlam costs close to half a million dollars, young families with kids are settling down in Maple Ridge and Abbotsford. Stewart believes one possible step towards discouraging the flight from the centre would be to allow basement suites.

"We just can't keep developing up the valley. We need to densify our existing neighbourhoods," according to Stewart, who guards against NIMBY opposition to densification. "Not just to keep our schools open but to maintain our quality of life."

Rural towns hard hit

But schools have shut down in virtually every district in the province over the past five years and densification is not a viable solution in rural communities, the very ones hit hardest when a closure occurs.

"When a school closes, young families don't want to settle in that community because there is no school," according to BCTF's Lanzinger. "So there is a downward spiral for that community."

The Ministry of Education wrote in an e-mail response to The Tyee that the districts make decisions regarding the fate of individual schools and that it is working on improving capital planning in order to maximize public benefits from schools and school lands.

In the meantime, more schools are set to close in the near future, according to the BCTF website.

Victoria trustee Beresford likes to think that everyone can see the wisdom of investing in education but she worries about the government's policy of downloading expenses to districts and pressuring them to sell public assets permanently.

"Closing down the small schools and leaving a few big box schools, is that really the way the government wants to go?"

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