For a number of years now school districts around British Columbia have been grappling with a province-wide reality: declining enrolment.
Since 2001, there are 70,000 fewer students – more than a 10-per-cent drop. Nearly every district in B.C. has dealt with the situation by doing something no one ever likes doing – closing schools and consolidating kids. In the past 15 years, 300 schools around the province have been padlocked for good, in almost every instance because of reduced numbers.
A sample: Victoria has locked the doors on nine; the Kootenays, 12; Prince Rupert, five; Coquitlam, 10; Cariboo-Chilcotin, 11; Richmond, six; Quesnel, five. It goes on. It's difficult to find a district anywhere that hasn't confronted the enrolment crisis by combining students in fewer buildings, saving millions in operating costs in the process. There has, however, been one glaring exception: Vancouver. Despite a registration plunge of 6,500 students (the population of Kimberley) since 2001, the district has only boarded up one small annex to an elementary school.
Rather than make the hard decisions other districts have, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) has chosen instead to whine about underfunding.
Now because of years of inaction, they have been forced into a cash corner and have announced a list of 10 elementary schools and two high schools that could be closed. I suspect the board is hoping that the howls of protest will be so great that the provincial government, less than a year away from an election, will back off and cough up the money to keep the schools open.
I wouldn't count on it.
The issue here is a very simple one. The VSB seems to believe it should be treated differently than other districts. One can only surmise this is because Vancouver is special, that its students and parents shouldn't be inconvenienced in the same way others around the province have been.
Think about this. To deal with funding issues it has faced, Prince George has closed 21 schools in 15 years – 21. And it's a much, much smaller city than Vancouver.
The Vancouver board is facing a $24.38-million budget shortfall. An audit by Ernst & Young last year identified $37-million in savings by closing as many as 19 schools to address the more than 10,000 empty seats that currently exist. The board has been aware of gains that could be made by merging students for some time but it chose to do nothing.
For the past eight years, the VSB has been controlled by Vision Vancouver politicians that have chosen to go to war with a provincial government they despise rather than behave like adults responsible for making the kind of unpopular decisions that go with the job. Instead, all we get are the same tiresome polemics about underfunding, a tedious and misinformed trope if there ever was one.
Education funding has increased more than $1-billion since 2001, despite a precipitous fall in enrolment numbers. The total operating grant for Vancouver has risen 23 per cent over that period, to $439-million from $365-million. Of course, there could always be more funding for education. But the fact is, the public doesn't want to pay additional taxes to finance the wish list of groups like the VSB. Instead, the provincial government has to make difficult decisions. Decisions, I repeat, most school districts in B.C. have been making also.
From the information released by the VSB, it does not appear that, in most cases, those students who would be affected by the proposed closings would have to go much farther to attend their new institution. In many cases, it's just a few blocks. People have also sounded the alarm about unique and valuable programs that exist in schools that would be affected being lost for good. But why couldn't they be introduced at a different school?
Of course, everyone would like things to stay the same. Parents want to have their kids continuing to go to the same school even if the numbers don't justify its existence. I get that. But it's simply not feasible economically. Parents, instead, need to focus on the benefits that exist at a larger school, because there are many, contrary to what the VSB and others would have you believe.
The bottom line here is Vancouver is only now dealing with a problem other school districts started dealing with years ago. If the board isn't prepared to make the tough choices that need to be made, it should make way for others who will.