With more than a dozen schools in the Lower Mainland spared from closing – at least for now – many students, parents and teachers are breathing sighs of relief.
But the long-term prospects for some of those schools are still uncertain, because of factors that include declining enrolments and the provincial government's desire to make the best use of scarce funds for upgrading school buildings to help them withstand an earthquake.
The recent board decisions to save the schools highlight confusion over the requirements for getting the seismic upgrades, as the province insisted they were not tied to a measure of how full classrooms are.
"We were operating on the understanding that we were working toward a 95 per cent capacity rate," Richmond board chair Debbie Tablotney said on Wednesday.
"All the documents that our staff presented to us, and their understanding as well, was that [95 per cent] was the guideline we had to work toward," she added.
In one such document, dated March 30, 2016, Richmond staff told the board, "In order to access provincial government funding to remediate the high risk seismic schools, the district has been directed to meet the goal of achieving 95 per cent capacity utilization.
"Given that our current utilization rate is 85 per cent, the district will only be able to achieve the targeted utilization rate by closing schools," the report said.
In June, the Ministry of Education wrote to the Richmond School board to clarify the targets, saying they were not a requirement, but a guideline for planning purposes, and that the targets applied to new construction. The government scrapped the targets last month and says they have never been a requirement.
The Richmond School Board on Tuesday voted against closing three schools. On Oct. 3, the Vancouver School Board suspended a process that could have closed up to 11 schools.
Both boards cited the government's recent decision to scrap utilization targets as a factor.
The targets have existed in government planning documents since the early 2000s. On Sept. 21, Education Minister Mike Bernier announced the government would eliminate them. He called the targets a "highly technical planning tool" and said they "have never been a requirement for seismic upgrades" – work being done through a program that ranked schools for their ability to withstand an earthquake.
The province used the targets, Mr. Bernier said, to help determine spending for new schools or expansions.
When he cancelled the targets last month, Mr. Bernier emphasized the province has spent millions on seismic upgrades to schools that were at less than 95 per cent capacity, reflecting a case-by-case approach.
In Vancouver, however, capacity targets were linked to seismic upgrades. Under a 2014 agreement with the province, the board agreed to work toward a 95 per cent utilization rate to help ensure upgrades went ahead.
Since that deal was struck the Vancouver board has raised concerns about the target, including whether services such as daycares or after-school programs would be squeezed out to increase the utilization rate.
That was a concern in Richmond as well.
"What the ministry doesn't calculate is some of the space we are using in different ways," Ms. Tablotney said. "You have daycares, out-of-school care – it is being used, but it is not being used as classroom space ... the space is being used, but it's not part of the calculation, unfortunately."
The Richmond district continues to work on a long-range facilities plan and hopes to get seismic projects approved soon, Ms. Tablotney said
Politics also entered into the board's decision. In a recent letter to a Richmond newspaper, three local MLAs – Teresa Wat, Linda Reid and John Yap – said "B.C.'s Seismic Mitigation Program is globally recognized and will ensure all high-risk schools are upgraded or replaced."
The letter went on to say: "The money is available to all high-risk schools and the pace of projects is largely dependent on how quickly and efficiently local school boards map out their priorities and deliver on upgrades."
With that pledge in hand, the Richmond board decided it could cancel plans to close schools.
"Well, we're hoping it is a solid commitment and we're certainly going to hold their feet to the fire on it, because we have it in black and white," Ms. Tablotney said.
The province has been working for more than a decade to upgrade schools. The most recent project to be completed is Yale Secondary, in Abbotsford, which recently underwent a $9.8-million upgrade.