The chair of the Vancouver School Board says closing schools is not an option for the foreseeable future, as the organization considers its response to a government audit that recommended such a move.
Fraser Ballantyne made the point Tuesday, the day after the nine-member board met to review an independent report whose recommendations included closing 19 schools as part of a long-range financial strategy. The audit, commissioned by the B.C. Ministry of Education, was conducted by Ernst & Young.
"There's absolutely no way we're going to be considering closure of schools for a number of years," Mr. Ballantyne said in an interview, noting that schools play a role in meeting community needs.
NDP opposition education critic Rob Fleming said one key reason to hold onto all schools is to provide "swing space" for students who are relocated while their schools are renovated to withstand earthquakes.
He called the closing of schools "unacceptable from any point of view" and said Vancouver, like other school districts in British Columbia, is grappling with the challenges of provincial downloading of costs.
Mr. Ballantyne, a former teacher and member of the centre-right Non-Partisan Association municipal political party, said while the closing issue "keeps popping up," a massive amount of community consultation would be required before such action is considered.
The review on school board finances was ordered by former education minister Peter Fassbender. Released in June, it outlined $72-million in potential annual savings and $750-million in one-time savings for Vancouver. The report offered advice to the board on meeting its obligation to balance its budget – something the board eventually did.
Ernst & Young suggested that closing 19 schools could save the cash-strapped board $37-million annually. The schools were not identified in the 225-page report, which featured 63 recommendations – 12 for the Education Ministry and 51 for the board.
In addition to school closings, the report suggested the board provide more fee-based programs, increase rental and lease revenues, and adopt a "template school design standard" to limit costs of building new facilities.
On Tuesday, the Vancouver board said it was not in a position to summarize its conclusions about the audit because it amended at least seven of the recommendations, and a written summary would take a few days to prepare.
Of the nine people on the board, the four NPA members and one Green Party member voted to endorse the approach to the report formulated through Monday's talks, while the four members of the centre-left Vision Vancouver party voted against the response.
Vision board member Patti Bacchus, a former long-time chair, said there were no new ideas or insights in the audit and the whole exercise seemed aimed at deflecting attention from the reality of dealing with low per-student funding.
"It doesn't take a highly paid auditor to say if you close schools and sell the land in Vancouver, you will find money. But that's not something, as a trustee, I think is in the best interest of communities," Ms. Bacchus said.
In a statement, the Education Ministry said it was content to await the full summary of the board's response to the audit.
"We will keep working with the board – and its new chair – as they look to move forward with innovative, sustainable plans that benefit students, families and communities now and in the future," the statement said.