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British Columbia Housing affordability crisis could prompt closure of Vancouver schools

A Vancouver school board report estimates that an overall decline in its student body will continue for a couple of years and then slowly increase over the next 15 years.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's school board is facing the possible closing of up to 13 schools, in part prompted by the city's housing affordability crisis that is forcing young families to give up on buying single-family homes and instead move into condos and apartments in or near downtown.

Trustees will debate a staff report on Wednesday night that provides a new strategy for juggling seismic upgrades to older buildings, while constructing newer schools in surging neighbourhoods such as Yaletown, the Olympic Village and the West End.

After years of committing to keeping schools open, trustees have been forced to act because of an ultimatum from B.C.'s Education Minister.

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David Nelson, who oversees the board's long-range facilities strategy, said there's an inverse relationship between Vancouver's overall population, which is aging and growing, and the number of school-aged children – which is declining as families get smaller and people have fewer children.

This emptying out of schools in the city's southeast and northeast is exacerbated by housing costs – forcing new parents closer to downtown, or into the suburbs such as Surrey, he said.

"Growth [in students] is uneven, so that's a key point and one of the challenges facing the district right now," Mr. Nelson said. "We have areas where we have more schools than we need … and we have others where we need more schools and more spaces."

Enrolment has been declining by about 600 students a year since it peaked in 1997 at roughly 57,000, Mr. Nelson said.

The board report estimates that an overall decline in its student body will continue for a couple of years and then slowly increase over the next 15 years, by about 550 students from today's total of 50,387 students.

However, elementary schools such as Yaletown's Elsie Roy are already full and forced to turn away children from 40 other families, according to Mike Lombardi, chair of the nine-trustee board.

"Before I got on the school board [in 2008], when they built the Elsie Roy school in Yaletown, people were saying, 'Oh, no kids are going to be at that school, why are they building it?'" he said. "We now have 10 schools in the city where we're using an enrolment management system where kids from the neighbourhood can't go into that school because it's full."

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Roughly 84 per cent of Vancouver's public school classrooms are full, but the district must submit a plan to reach 95-per-cent capacity before the province will pay for seismic upgrades to existing schools, as well as the construction of new facilities in these growing neighbourhoods.

The VSB report doesn't target any specific schools, but it estimates that 11 or 12 elementary schools and one high school would need to be closed in the next 15 years.

The board is set to vote on the staff's recommendations next week before sending an interim plan to the provincial Education Ministry by Jan. 31. Public consultations will then take place over the next several months before the board issues its updated Long Range Facilities Plan by June 30, Mr. Lombardi said.

The board has so far upgraded 20 schools, but another 69 are still deemed high risk in the event of an earthquake and require seismic mitigation, according to the report.

The new report is a "living document" to be updated annually, which means the need for closings could change if affordability in the region is improved or birth rates increase, for example, Mr. Nelson said.

The board has long said that school closings were not an option for balancing its budget. But it agreed to fill more of its classrooms last year after an independent audit, commissioned by the Education Ministry, recommended closing 19 schools as part of a long-range financial strategy.

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The board report released this week found that the district could save about $250,000 in annual operating costs if it closed an annex school, roughly double that for shuttering an elementary school and $1.9-million for a high school.

District Parent Advisory Council chair Mabel Sun said her executive had planned to meet Tuesday night to discuss the report before issuing an official statement.

She said that "just like many parents," she is against closing any schools because these neighbourhoods might once again draw in young families.

"Then with the housing prices, the land prices so high you're going to spend more money to build a new school to accommodate that growth?" said Ms. Sun, whose daughter is a senior at Magee Secondary School. "That might be the reality, so for that reason I don't think it's a good idea in the long run.

"The majority of the Vancouver residents? They had to go to public school, so public education is the foundation to all the students and to the entire society."

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