The Vancouver School Board is resisting a provincial effort to open a new facility for French-language schools as the B.C. government attempts to comply with a court order to better accommodate those students.
Education Minister Rob Fleming had asked the board to consider closing an annex to a west-side school that has only 68 students and leasing the building to the province’s francophone school board. In turn, he would support a new school for the Olympic Village neighbourhood – a residential area created out of former industrial land that is packed with children and is a priority for the Vancouver board.
To the disappointment of both francophone and anglophone parents, however, everything appears to be at a stalemate between the ministry and the district after the board rejected even holding consultations on the proposal.
The province has been struggling to provide new schools for the Conseil francophone de la Colombie-Brittanique since the Supreme Court of Canada ordered B.C. in 2017 to find more space for rapidly growing francophone schools. In an earlier case, the court concluded the Charter rights of students at École Rose-des-vents on Vancouver’s west side were breached because their facilities and instruction were not equivalent to those at majority-language schools.
The francophone board serves children who have a French-language or French-education background under minority-language right guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is different from French immersion, which the anglophone boards provide.
Mr. Fleming said closing Queen Elizabeth Annex – which itself is a French-immersion school – and leasing it to the francophone board would have generated “tens of millions” of dollars for the cash-strapped Vancouver school district. The education ministry has said it will not build new schools in areas with declining enrolment without a substantial contribution from the district.
The Vancouver school district has had the most significant decline in enrolment in the province, even though in some areas – particularly neighbourhoods near downtown such as Olympic Village that have been recently developed, the numbers of school-aged children are increasing.
The proposal would have put the lease money towards a new Olympic Village school.
"I think it’s time for leaders in Vancouver to think about francophone kids too … and help families in areas of their district that are densifying,” Mr. Fleming said.
But the school board in October voted 6-3 against a proposal to begin consultations on the subject.
Board member Jennifer Reddy of the OneCity party, who voted no, said not enough information was provided to go ahead.
“I really wanted to be convinced,” she said, adding that she didn’t know what upgrades the district would have to pay for if it gave a long-term lease to the francophone board, or what kind of revenue it would get.
Board chair Janet Fraser, who supported consultations, said she was willing to consider the idea because it seemed to apply only in that particular case. She said some parents are concerned the rejection could end all hope of getting new school spaces for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Fleming said it’s difficult to justify building a new school for Vancouver when it struggles with declining enrolment over all – and the only increase in student numbers is in the francophone schools.
The district had about 58,000 students a decade ago, and about 52,000 now. Francophone-school enrolment throughout B.C. has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
“I can’t think of another urban school district in the province that has a K-to-3 elementary school with 68 students, built for 110 students, in a neighbourhood where the average home sells for $3.8-million," Mr. Fleming said. "This is not going to be an area where families buy a two-bedroom, one-bathroom starter home … and fill that school.”
Francophone board chair Marie-Pierre Lavoie said parents are disappointed and the board is considering trying to get a school site in one of two major pieces of land that Vancouver’s Indigenous nations co-own and are planning to develop: the Jericho lands on the city’s west side and the Heather lands in the centre.
Parents in Olympic Village fear they won’t see a school for a decade or more.
“The minister put his neck out to make this offer ... and I don’t see how he could approve the school after this," said Lisa McAllister, who has a four-year-old and a one-year-old and faces the prospect of taking them to schools kilometres away.
“It’s destroying the community.”
Ms. McAllister said the city has encouraged density in new areas without making sure they will have schools.
The head of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, Shaun Kelley, said the whole process had some serious flaws, including what he said were dubious enrolment calculations.
“One of the really unfortunate parts was that it felt like it was pitting one school community against another,” he said.