Downtown public schools are overcrowded because of an unexpected surge in density, according to a Vancouver School Board report, but trustees say the province’s failure to fund new facilities is also to blame.
VSB trustees were to meet Wednesday evening to officially endorse a new report by Jim Meschino, director of facilities and planning for the VSB, which found every school on the peninsula west of Main Street is operating at full or over capacity. Mr. Meschino has sent a letter to city staff recommending that at least one new elementary and high school be built downtown to alleviate pressure on existing schools. The report cites changes made to the city’s long-term official development plan (ODP) for Northeast False Creek in 2009 as a main source of enrolment pressure on downtown schools. An additional four million square feet of residential space was added to the 9.9 million square feet originally allotted in 1990. The result is an expected 7,200 more residents in the area than initially planned. The amended ODP also requires more family-appropriate housing than the original plan.
“The changes in neighbourhood densities caught us a bit off guard. We’ve been surprised by the number of families with school-aged children deciding to stay and live in the downtown core. They used to start in the city and move to the suburbs, but that’s not always the case any more,” said Allan Wong, a VSB trustee and chair of the board’s planning and facilities committee.
Pressure on schools will be ratcheted up in other downtown neighbourhoods as well. The West End community development plan is expected to bring several thousand new residents to the area. Increased populations in Northeast False Creek and the West End will also drive the number of school-aged children living downtown higher than what the VSB can accommodate.
But Mr. Wong also said that there were signs of impending overcrowding problems before Elsie Roy Elementary, the most recent elementary school constructed downtown, was completed in 2004.
“When Elsie Roy Elementary was being built, it filled up before it was even done. And then when we expanded it with four new classrooms last year, they filled up right away, too,” Mr. Wong said.
There are currently 39 school-age children within Elsie Roy Elementary’s catchment area that will not have a place there in September. The VSB is working with each family individually to find an alternative school.
Despite the demand from downtown residents, the B.C. Ministry of Education has been slow to fund new schools.
“We’ve always been told by the provincial government that until we can prove their will be butts in the seats, they won’t approve new schools or expansions. So there is always a lag time for when new space for students will be available,” Mr. Wong said. “We’ll be having this same discussion about other parts of the city in years down the road.”
Mr. Wong points out that International Village Elementary, the peninsula’s only school currently slated for construction, took more than 10 years to finally be funded by the province. It is scheduled for completion by 2015, but Mr. Wong says he hopes the VSB and city council can “go full throttle” at pressing the province to expedite construction.
“We realize that there is a shortage,” said Kevin McNaney, assistant director of planning with the City of Vancouver. “We can get the sites for new schools but it means working collaboratively with the province and the school board to actually get them built.”
Mr. McNaney said that the city has secured school sites in Coal Harbour and Southeast False Creek, but that it’s up to the VSB and the province to move ahead with construction.
The B.C. Ministry of Education was unavailable for comment at press time.