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Municipal Politics

Why Is Queen Elizabeth Annex on the Chopping Block Again?

It’s the fourth time in 15 years. Parents say a provincial lawsuit has a lot to do with it.

Katie Hyslop 24 Mar

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them at [email protected].

For the fourth time in nearly 15 years, the students, staff and parents of Queen Elizabeth Annex elementary school are facing a possible school closure. The small French immersion school in Vancouver’s Dunbar-Southlands neighbourhood had 71 students enrolled as of the start of the current school year in September 2021.

On Monday, Jan. 17, the Vancouver School Board held a special board meeting to hear a report from district staff recommending the closure of Queen Elizabeth Annex. The meeting had been announced just three days before, on a Friday afternoon.

This was less than three years after the school board received, and ultimately rejected, a similar report from staff recommending they close the school.

But this time the board voted in favour of starting the multi-step closure process.

This does not mean the school will definitely close. Rather, the decision triggers a series of events including 60 days of public consultation on the potential closure. The feedback they receive will inform the school board trustees’ final decision on closing the annex, often short-formed as “QEA,” at their May 30 board meeting.

If they do vote to close, the annex will shut its doors at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

But parents are accusing the district of obfuscating what they suspect is the main reason district staff recommend closing the annex: to settle a lawsuit filed by the Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, the francophone school board, against the province and the district. Selling or leasing the annex to the Conseil Scolaire, parents say — and school district staff agree — would settle the district’s portion of the lawsuit because it would provide the Conseil Scolaire with a needed school site on Vancouver’s west side.

The Education Ministry has also previously stated that if the annex is transferred to Conseil Scolaire, the province would be in a position to talk about funding with government for the development of a much-needed, much-talked-about English-language elementary school in Olympic Village.

The annex is located in an area of the city where the population is growing; additionally, as a French immersion school, it enrols children from across Vancouver. Early French immersion is historically a very popular program provincewide, including in Vancouver. In 2019, for example, the Vancouver Sun reported families hoping to enrol their kids in the program could be facing a lottery for seats because of the high demand.

When The Tyee asked the Vancouver School Board how long their early French immersion waitlist is, we were told that information would be released during the upcoming public consultations on the annex closure.

Michael Hooper, parent to one child at Queen Elizabeth Annex and another entering kindergarten there next fall, is a planning professor at the University of British Columbia. He’s alarmed the district is considering disposing of the school.

“These are public assets that are being disposed of, on very short order, in a totally inappropriate way,” Hooper said.

The district, he added, is “the only organization in the world that thinks a good business case in Vancouver is turning an asset in the land into cash at the height of inflation.”

Where would annex students go?

Queen Elizabeth Annex is a kindergarten to Grade 3 school on Vancouver’s west side, one of 17 elementary French Immersion schools in the district. But it is one of only two French immersion elementary schools west of Dunbar Street.

The annex has found itself on the chopping block four times since 2008 for a variety of reasons. Like many schools in Vancouver, Queen Elizabeth Annex was built more than 50 years ago. It’s seismically unsafe and in need of repair, with an estimated $2.6 million in maintenance work needed. For context, it would cost an estimated $3.8 million to replace the school.

The annex is also small, with just six classrooms. It serves as an overflow and feeder school for L’École Jules Quesnel, a French immersion kindergarten to Grade 7 school located about one kilometre north of the annex.

Students accepted into L’École Jules Quesnel are given the choice to start kindergarten there or at the annex. Annex students transfer to Jules Quesnel for Grade 4.

Its small student population and smaller class sizes make Queen Elizabeth Annex expensive to run. The district estimates that in 2019 they spent $11,288 per child to operate the annex, compared to $6,876 per child at Jules Quesnel. Provincial per-student funding covers $7,885 per student.

Along with 41 other schools in the district, there are no plans underway to seismically upgrade the annex, which has an H3 seismic safety rating, meaning in the event of an earthquake some building elements would fail, and the school would not be repairable.

Another school with no seismic upgrading plan is Queen Elizabeth Elementary, also located about a kilometre north of the annex, which is carrying $6 million in deferred maintenance and an H3 seismic rating. But that isn’t stopping Vancouver staff from recommending amalgamating Queen Elizabeth Annex’s students with either Queen Elizabeth Elementary or L’École Jules Quesnel.

The district report says it would save $150,000 annually if students relocated to Queen Elizabeth Elementary, or $300,000 annually if they consolidated with the French immersion program at Jules Quesnel. Most cost savings would be from a reduction in required staff.

Queen Elizabeth Elementary currently has space for an additional 129 students. Moving annex students to this school could help the district make the case to the province for funding the seismic upgrading of the school, staff wrote in the Jan. 17 report.

Unlike the annex, Queen Elizabeth Elementary has a partial second floor, which Hooper says makes it more dangerous in an earthquake than the one-storey Annex.

“As a one-storey building, your risk of death is much lower,” said Hooper. An associate professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, Hooper’s research interests focus on the four themes of “displacement, disasters, spatial transformation and participatory planning.”

Moving students to Jules Quesnel, the district report says, would provide students with a larger French immersion community to learn from, end the disruption annex students experience by transferring for Grade 4, and allow more collaboration between French immersion educators and support staff.

The report also argues moving students to either school would provide annex students with more educational resources, as well as additional full-time administrative and support staff.

According to the staff report, Jules Quesnel currently is just 42 additional students shy of its building operating capacity. At the Jan. 17 meeting deputy Supt. David Nelson said staff had figured out a way to accommodate annex students into the school without overcrowding, but he did not elaborate.

Nelson added he is open to alternative suggestions for accommodating annex students that may come from public consultations.

The district report says public consultation would take place over at least 60 days, from Feb. 1 to April 30. The district told The Tyee via email that initial consultation conversations have happened with the impacted schools and stakeholders, but that they will be outlining what consultation will look like, as well as providing answers for parents’ many questions, in the coming days.

However trustees have had the opportunity to hear from some parents during special delegation board meetings like the one on Jan. 24. Kim Werker from the L’École Jules Quesnel Parent Advisory Committee told the board parents were not given enough notice of the closure procedure, and additionally that their timing, given the extra burdens faced by families during the pandemic, was bad.

She added that to her knowledge, there is no room for additional students at Jules Quesnel.

“Jules Quesnel is an old building, and so the classes are not very large. And when there are 27 to 28 children in a classroom, it’s packed,” Werker said.

The district could not confirm the class sizes at Jules Quesnel. However, they told The Tyee there are currently two unused classrooms at the school in addition to the 42 available seats.

Where the French school board comes in

Lawsuits from the Conseil Scolaire and a provincial election promise for an Olympic Village elementary school loom large over the closure debate.

In 2016 the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that by underfunding the francophone school board and not providing adequate school spaces, the province violated Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protecting the right of minority language parents to have their children receive an education in their language.

The suit had been brought against the province in 2010 by the Conseil Scolaire, the Fédération des parents francophones de Colombie-Britannique and three parents.

The 2016 ruling acknowledged the Conseil Scolaire’s right to schools in certain communities, including Vancouver, and ordered the province to pay the council $6 million for underfunding their transportation system from 2002-3 to 2011-12.

The Conseil Scolaire appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in its favour in 2020.

The Education Ministry has pressured Vancouver to give the annex to the council before. During an Oct. 28, 2019 Vancouver school board meeting, Chair Janet Fraser read a statement from then-education minister Rob Fleming saying that he would only be able to request government funding for a new Olympic Village school — a district priority — if the district leased Queen Elizabeth Annex to the Conseil Scolaire Francophone.

The district declined to close the annex in 2019, and CBC reported at the time that board chair Fraser said the board would not look at closing the school again.

During the 2020 provincial election campaign NDP candidates Brenda Bailey and George Heyman promised a new school would be built in Olympic Village should their party form government again.

Their press release did not mention closing Queen Elizabeth Annex. But it did take a swipe at the BC Liberals for closing 267 schools during their 15 years in government and for pressuring the Vancouver district to close 19 schools in 2015.

The NDP did form government again in 2020, and both Heyman and Bailey were elected. But the Olympic Village school has yet to secure any provincial funding. At the Jan. 17 special board meeting, Nelson said the province may require the district to supply up to 50 per cent of the funding for the new school.

That is one of the reasons staff is suggesting they negotiate a transfer of the annex with the Conseil Scolaire Francophone: they can use the money from the exchange to help fund the new Olympic Village school, as well as seismic upgrades for David Thompson Secondary and Sir Wilfred Grenfell Elementary.

The district staff report does not specify whether they would lease or sell the annex site to the school, using the term “disposition of the QEA site” instead. How much money they would anticipate receiving from the disposition of the school is also unclear — the district told The Tyee via email that those questions and others, like how L’École Jules Quesnel could accommodate annex students and whether the district has a French immersion waitlist, would be addressed during the coming community engagement.

‘It's just not acceptable, quite frankly’

After the district refused to close the annex in 2019, the Vancouver School Board, the province and the Conseil Scolaire began mediation over conflicts between the school boards, including but not limited to transferring VSB lands to the Conseil Scolaire.

At the Jan. 17 board meeting, secretary-treasurer David Green said no agreements had been reached. But he would not provide further details because mediation is a “confidential process.”

In December 2020 the Conseil Scolaire filed another civil suit with the B.C. Supreme Court, this time against the province and the Vancouver school district, claiming the district was violating Section 23 of the charter by not transferring Queen Elizabeth Annex.

The council is asking the B.C. Supreme Court to order the district to turn over the annex.

It also requested that the court declare that the Vancouver District’s Policy 20, Disposal of Land or Improvements — which directs the district to “not sell school lands but maintain or increase [its] current number of school sites to preserve neighbourhood sites for current and future educational and community use” — violates the francophones’ Section 23 charter rights by preventing adequate access to school facilities in Vancouver. The case is ongoing.

At the Jan. 17 meeting, Green said if the annex is given to the Conseil Scolaire, the majority of the civil case conditions relating to the district would be resolved.

The Tyee requested an interview with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside on the school closure process and pressure from the ministry to transfer the annex to the francophone school board.

Whiteside was not made available. Instead her office emailed a statement to The Tyee.

“Francophone students deserve the same access to public education as their Anglophone peers, and we appreciate the co-operation of the VSB and the CSF on this matter,” the statement read, reiterating the opportunity to move students to L’École Jules Quesnel, but not mentioning Queen Elizabeth Elementary.

“This would ensure Francophone students in the community have a school of their own, and provide the VSB with significant funding to advance their capital priorities.” The statement acknowledged there is a rezoning proposal for the Heather Lands development at Heather Street and W. 37th Avenue that includes an elementary school for the Conseil Scolaire.

“However the QEA site has been identified as the most suitable place to provide a school for CSF students in this neighbourhood,” the statement read.

The Tyee also requested an interview with Conseil Scolaire Supt. Michel St-Amant, but he was not made available.

Instead the francophone district also emailed The Tyee a statement: “Negotiations with the developer and other stakeholders are still ongoing to secure a long-term lease of a parcel in the Heather Lands development. QEA would be needed to serve a different catchment area. It is two different projects.”

The Conseil Scolaire added their plan is to build a new school if given control of the annex site.

Hooper spoke with Attorney General and Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby, whose riding includes the annex, about the closure process in February. Hooper said Eby made the same arguments as the school districts and the Ministry of Education.

“They want this all to go away over the very short term. And in some ways I get that, but not by liquidating the long-term assets of the public realm. And that's where they're putting their own interests, and maybe even understandable personal interests, ahead of the public good,” he said, comparing it to the sale of BC Rail.

“And it's just not acceptable, quite frankly.”

The BC NDP caucus confirmed Eby met with several annex parents. In an emailed statement from Eby to The Tyee, he pledged to convey parents’ concerns about the possible closure to the Education Ministry.

“I also share with them information from the Ministry that the VSB will be consulting with the public to ensure any plan for that school site meets the needs of families in our community and provides a long-term benefit to all students, and encourage them to participate in that process,” Eby’s statement read.

The Tyee also requested an interview with Vancouver School Board Chair Janet Fraser, but she was not made available, either. Instead the district’s communications department emailed a statement.

“The District acknowledges school closures are difficult conversations. That’s why staff intentionally involved the [Parent Advisory Committees’] executives from the three impacted school communities early in the process to demonstrate the District’s commitment to design an inclusive and equitable engagement process, together,” the statement read.

The district also told The Tyee they have reached out to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations for their feedback. The Musqueam First Nation, as well as the MST Development Corp. — a partnership of all three nations — have plans to construct thousands of housing units on the city’s west side and on Musqueam band land near the University of British Columbia.

‘This is actually about assets that are held in the public trust’

Hooper is not alone in his assessment of the closure process. During several school board and district committee meetings in January, trustees and parents expressed their opposition to closing Queen Elizabeth Annex.

Both trustees Jennifer Reddy and Barb Parrott voted against starting the closure procedure at the Jan. 17 meeting.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the CSF to point at a particular school and say ‘We want that school’ and not move off that school,” said Parrott. “This is not the Vancouver School Board’s problem, this is the ministry’s problem.”

During the board’s Jan. 31 meeting, where trustees voted to begin the public consultation process, Reddy noted the staff report did not include information on long-term district enrolment expectations.

“Making decisions on behalf of future generations without that information is something that I’m not comfortable with,” she said.

Even trustees who voted in favour of the closure process expressed concern about moving students to Jules Quesnel due to space concerns.

At the Jan. 24 meeting where the board heard from parents, members of the annex’s parent advisory committee argued the district should be using population projections from the City of Vancouver’s city plan and the Metro Vancouver regional plan, which plan for up to the year 2050 and come out later this year.

The estimated 40,000-plus new housing units coming to the west side, as well as census population data released in February, should also be used when thinking about the school closure, annex parent advisory committee member Lia Gudaitis added.

The annex’s PAC brought a motion to the district in June 2021 requesting they make no irreversible decisions about school closures until several factors were met, including basing all policies and future plans on enrolment projections that use current census data and the district shares that data with parents.

This motion has the support of the District Parent Advisory Council, with 94 per cent of parent advisory committees voting in favour of it at an October 2021 meeting.

Vik Khanna, a member of the District Parent Advisory Council, spoke out against the proposed annex closure at the district’s Jan. 19 Facilities Planning Committee meeting.

“Parents wish they knew how the ministry’s legal problem with the CSF became VSB’s legal problem, and that the VSB would at least publicly release a legal opinion on how this is VSB’s problem,” he said of the school board.

“Parents wish that moving from one unsafe school to another unsafe school was never an option.”

Khanna also asked if the Olympic Village school funding requirements would also be used to close other elementary school annexes or schools with lower populations in the district. It’s a concern Hooper shares.

“This is actually about assets that are held in the public trust over the long term for Vancouverites, which, unfortunately, are underprotected, poorly understood by the population and therefore deeply at risk of being plundered, especially if different levels of government start to take a shared vested interested in it,” Hooper said.

“Then it's just parents and a few planning nerds saying, 'Hang on, what? That doesn't seem appropriate.'”  [Tyee]

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