Sir Guy Carleton Elementary slated for closure – photo: Janice S
Monday was a low point for Vancouver's Board of Education, aka the VSB. After releasing a absurdly long list of eleven schools proposed for closure back in June (without any formal process to choose those schools), a final five facilities were presented to the Board's committee meeting tonight at 7pm.
However, you didn't need to wait because the entire list of schools was read aloud on the five o'clock early news. According to Trustee Ken Denike, he was being called as early as 10:30am by media (CTV, CBC and GlobalTV all had the list) who had been tipped off and wanted to confirm the full list of five schools. GlobalTV were on the street today interviewing parents outside Sir Guy Carleton Elementary what they thought about their school closing, while CTV interviewed parents of Sir William Macdonald Elementary.
Someone either on staff or one of the VSB trustees themselves leaked the list to the media, possibly as early as the weekend. According to CBC News, "two trustees" were the source of the leak. Chair Patti Bacchus admonished both NPA trustees Denike and Carol Gibson in Monday afternoon's public meeting, and all but accused them both of the leak, calling it "despicable". But it was neither Denike nor Gibson who were responsible for the leak.
Whoever leaked the schools list clearly did not have a large amount of respect for Chairperson Bacchus, who as the face of the board would be most negatively affected by the loose lips. Nor did they have a lot of respect for parents, kids and staff in affected schools. The fact that this information got out at all is a tragic turn for this otherwise ridiculous process set out by the BoE. No one who looked at the numbers ever expected more than five, possibly six schools to be put on the list for closure. Putting nearly a dozen schools – including three in one catchment area alone – had inevitable political consequences.
At Monday night's meeting you got all the predictable reaction. CUPE's Paul Faoro once again called out the Provincial government for their "cuts", calling them "shameful". The last two times I attended a VSB public meeting Faoro said the same thing, even muttering "shame!" then. Someone get the man a thesaurus, please.
Trustee Mike Lombardi gave one of his trademark sermons on the evils of the Ministry of Education. And at least three eastside NDP MLAs – Kwan, Dix and Simpson – looked on unimpressed by the Vision/COPE board's decision to move forward with closing schools in their ridings.
Trustee Denike suggested that with over 8000 surplus spaces in Vancouver schools, and the decline of over 5000 students in the past 12 years, that perhaps the Board could find the positive outcomes for the affected catchment areas. Denike's suggestion was quickly waved off by the Vision trustees, who didn't want to miss the opportunity to extract a political pound of flesh from Victoria.
Faced with a crisis the Vision/COPE Trustees natural instincts have been to fall back and blame someone else. Given the chance to deal with the serious problems (and, yes, opportunities) that arise from declining enrollment, they decided instead to go on the attack. When everyone in the system knew that only a half dozen schools tops were candidates for closure, they allowed twice the amount to be put forward and by doing so caused needless anxiety among parents and staff.
When the system needs real leadership and creative spirit, none apparently exists. For years my fellow parents and I attempted to make McBride Annex in my neighbourhood a viable choice for parents and kids in the community, through a series of small gestures and outside the box thinking. But year by year the school population dwindled. Our great fear was that without a strong viable elementary school, the very heart of my community would whither.
We won't allow this to happen, which is why I want the main school in our catchment area to prosper. Sir Richard McBride Elementary – named after an early BC Premier – will be one hundred years old next year. By investing in this facility it will turn out several more generations of excellence. This is the choice that faces our school trustees: embrace the future or fight yesterday's battles.
Trustees Bacchus and Lombardi don't want to make any kind of gesture to the parents and students in the five schools slated for closure until a full process is completed for closing the schools. That will take months. The period for this process will be highly politicized, and while the Vision/COPE trustees will claim to emphathize with affected communities, they'll be using it all for their political theatre.
If there was any real compassion or initiative at Vancouver's Board of Education there would be immediate steps taken to mitigate some of the anxiety and confusion this process has already caused. Superintendent Steve Cardwell, who I'm led to believe came up with the eleven school list after only six months on the job, must move forward as soon as possible try and aid affected communities.
- A meeting between staff representatives of the BoE, school administrators and the parent advisory committee in the five schools should be conducted within 14 days. The goal of this meeting should be to set out a plan to uphold the confidence of parents in their local public school, and to present clear options on where students can enroll in 2011.
- School open houses should be budgeted for in nearby schools, preferably within the catchment area. Parents should be given the opportunity to visit the other schools in their catchment area, preferably with at least two times including a possible weekend opening given that many parents work Monday to Friday. Personal invitations to the parents within schools on the closure list, followed up by office admins if possible, would help to secure a high turnout for the open houses.
- Don't assume that parents/kids know where the other schools are – invest in developing safe walking routes to alternate facilities.
- All the above should happen concurrently and not after the VSB's closure consultation process.
Finally, since we are in effect taking something out of the affected communities, we should be compelled to give something back. If the net savings over five years on a school annex is just over $1 million, then part of those savings (20-25%) should be rolled into a special one-time piece of capital infrastructure as a legacy of the closed school. By closing McBride Annex or Sir Guy Carleton, you are reducing the costs of the district. This would free up budget for a new sport amenity, or a covered play area, for example, at Sir Richard McBride or Bruce Elementary.
Of course, trying to turn this challenge for our school board into something positive would take leadership and imagination, and the ability to mute the politics in our school system. Nothing has given me the confidence yet that the present Vancouver Board of Education will attempt to take the high road.
- post by Mike