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Who’s Raising Concerns About School Closures in Vancouver?

The VSB says it won’t be shuttering sites this year. But one trustee says budget deficits put it on the horizon.

Katie Hyslop 24 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

The Vancouver School Board says it has no plans to close schools or school annexes in order to balance its 2023-24 school budget. But at least one school trustee believes school closures could be announced at any time due to the district’s projected deficit issues.

On April 19 school board chair Victoria Jung published a letter to Twitter on behalf of herself and the district denying rumours the district had immediate plans to close schools to recoup a projected $4.5 million operating deficit for the next school year.

“I can confirm that the board has not initiated any new school closure processes,” Jung’s letter read.

School districts are required under the School Act to present a balanced budget at the end of June each school year. No proposed budget cuts have been announced, despite voting on the final budget scheduled for May 1. But because the School Act requires a balanced budget, cuts will have to be made somewhere.

Which is why school trustee Suzie Mah said her party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, better known as COPE, held a rally against program cuts and school closures outside school district headquarters on April 19.

“We wanted [the rally] to be a voice for those people who feel that they have been shut out of the budget process, shut out of transparent processes that the school board should have,” Mah said, adding she believed the rally forced Jung to issue the letter.

On their website COPE said some of the suggestions to balance the 2023-24 budget, if approved, would “result in closures of annexes and schools that are deemed ‘underutilized,’ the disposal of publicly owned school district land, and the consolidation of alternate and district programs.”

“Of course, they cannot actually close an annex for this budget process,” Mah told The Tyee. But the process to start considering a school closure could start at any time after the budget passes on May 1.

“I know that some [trustees] do believe in closing schools as a way to balance the budget,” she said, adding she could not elaborate as these beliefs were shared in private meetings.

The rally, which Mah estimates drew between from 150 to 200 students and parents, included those rallying specifically against the closure of Queen Elizabeth Annex, a decision made in 2022, and the move of Ideal Mini School from Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary to Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.

COPE was not the only voice citing potential school closures. Multiple posts on the blog CityHallWatch claimed the district was contemplating closing up to 40 school sites based on a heavily redacted version of the district’s Land Asset Strategy obtained by freedom of information request.

Post author Brian Palmquist alleged the board was “discussing secret plans to close and sell off up to 40 “‘surplus’ schools” based on the redacted document.

On April 17 the blog promoted COPE’s rally and linked to Palmquist’s posts for context.

However the “surplus sites” are redacted, and it is unknown how many are schools, let alone currently operational schools. The strategy names the district as one of the largest property owners in Vancouver, including non-school sites like the land under Kingsgate Mall.

Palmquist told The Tyee via email that he presented his theory to the board at an April 5 public delegation meeting, but they did not respond to his allegation.

“I did not think it necessary to fact check redactions,” he wrote The Tyee. “I have heard anecdotally that half are operating schools, but can’t fact check that.”

Mah said she has not seen an unredacted version of this draft of the Land Asset Strategy, but has requested one. An unredacted but less detailed version, which Mah calls “sanitized,” is available on the district’s website.

The Tyee reached out to the Vancouver school district to ask whether the district was contemplating closing schools and why, and for clarification on what the 40 “surplus” sites are.

The Tyee also asked about a large discrepancy between the Education Ministry and district enrolment projections for the district, with the district predicting an over 3,000-student drop in over the next decade — while the ministry predicts a 10,000-student increase. The Tyee asked if the district was factoring in housing developments under consideration or under construction in their long-term planning strategy.

The district did not respond by press time.

Axed annexes

As evidence the district was considering closing schools to balance this budget, Mah cited a list of potential school closures district staff made in 2016, as well as the closure of five school annexes since 2016.

Maquinna Annex was closed in 2016, although it had not enrolled students since 2015.

The closures of Sir Wilfred Laurier Annex and Henderson Annex were decided by Dianne Turner, the sole trustee who replaced the fired Vancouver School Board in 2016.

Both Maquinna and Sir Wilfred Laurier School Annexes were leased to the French public school board, Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique.

The Laurier Annex lease became a point of contention again earlier this month, this time for parents and students of the Ideal Mini School, currently housed in a building on the grounds of Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary.*

The mini school is being moved to Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School for the 2023-24 school year due to an expected overflow of students enrolled at the elementary school. This overflow would have previously been handled by putting students in the Laurier Annex.

The fourth annex closed, Garibaldi Annex, was a decision made by a board elected in 2017, of whom only Green Party school board trustee Janet Fraser remains on the board today.

The fifth closure was Queen Elizabeth Annex, a decision made by the school board elected in 2018, whose members included current trustees Fraser, as well as Jennifer Reddy and Lois Chan-Pedley. Only Reddy, from the OneCity party, voted against closing the school.

A new board, including Reddy, Fraser, Mah, Chan-Pedley, Jung and four other trustees from the A Better City Vancouver municipal party, were elected in October 2022.

District staff presented lists of potential schools to close in 2010, 2016 and 2019. Neither 2010’s or 2019’s list resulted in closures.

A looming budget deficit was cited by some trustees when the board decided in 2022 to close Queen Elizabeth Annex.

But there were other factors: the Education Ministry’s request the district give the school to the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique to help settle a lawsuit the francophone school board had launched against the ministry and district; and to ensure ministry funding came for a new school in Olympic Village.

That same year the ministry told the district to start submitting multi-year financial planning, something that, at least in 2022, it had not required of any other district.

The district has been asking the ministry for funding for an Olympic Village school since 2006, and the NDP government campaigned on funding its construction in the 2020 election.

But despite the closure of the annex at the end of this school year, no government funding for the Olympic Village school has been announced.

Parents of students at the Annex have requested the BC Supreme Court launch a judicial review of the district’s decision to close the school.

The district’s school closure policy

Jung’s letter directed readers to the district’s school closure policy, which requires district staff to present a proposal to close a school at a public meeting.

Next the board decides whether to proceed with considering the closure, in which case the proposal is sent to the board’s facilities planning committee for discussion. Once the committee has sent their recommendations back to the board, then the board decides whether to proceed with a public consultation on the potential closure or reject closure altogether.

Queen Elizabeth Annex parents complained that the consultation process was not robust enough in practice. And complaints about the district's overall public consultation process have been made by parents since at least 2019.

In the tweet sharing her letter, Jung accused unnamed “individuals or parties who choose to use fear to get ahead.” In an email to The Tyee, CityHallWatch director Randy Helten rejected the assertion.

“The use of fear is not part of our strategy. School board ‘trustees’ are elected on ‘trust,’ but to maintain that, the public needs to be able to ‘verify.’ So why was the report redacted? It's not politics. It's simple decency to tell the folks who paid for the study what it says,” he wrote.

Mah also denied COPE was intentionally stoking fear among the public. She said instead that the party was aiming to promote board transparency.

Jung’s letter acknowledged that last October, the previous school board directed staff to “explore strategies to address the significant structural deficit issue in the district” as part of the annual budget process.

Those strategies staff came up with include moving or consolidating school programs, closing sites that have no students enrolled, and moving students from annexes to main schools where possible.

Jung stated these strategies were shared with the public through the current budget consultation process, but that annex closures were not part of the 2023-24 school year budget.

Mah said she does not yet know what strategies the district will use to balance the next year’s budget.

But for long-term budget planning, district staff have said deficits need to be reduced.

“I think it’s very important the board understand that without a serious and dedicated approach to dealing with the structural deficit, the situation is a little dire,” said secretary treasurer J. David Green at an April 3 board meeting.

The district’s multi-year financial plan from 2023 to 2026, as required by the Education Ministry, is showing consistent operational deficits, he said, adding school budgets for 2024-26 will be based on how they deal with the current deficit, as well as whether the district’s enrollment projections pan out.

* Story updated on April 25 at 3:52 p.m. to clarify that the Ideal Mini School is housed in a building on the grounds of Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary, not inside the school itself.  [Tyee]

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