Mothers applaud decision to demolish Vancouver bilingual school

Alumni sought to preserve building

School trustees voted Monday to demolish and replace the seismically unsound LEcole Bilingue despite the pleas from elementary school alumni to preserve the 102-year-old building.

The decision brought applause from four women, each of them a mother with children in the school and most of them members of the schools Parent Advisory Council. What you saw in us, our emotional reaction, was relief that the process is moving forward, said parent Candice Murray. It had nothing to do with having any feelings about what concept was being put forward.

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She said the French immersion school was one of the most seismically endangered in the province. School trustees unanimously decided to follow staff recommendations and tear down the brick clay building, which was built in two phases in 1910 and 1912, as well as the gym, which was built in 1949. A new school will be rebuilt on the same property at West 14th Ave between Alder and Spruce streets for an estimated $13.2 million. An additional $2.9 million will be spent on temporary classroom space at the South Hill Education Centre, and transportation costs may add to the total.

The school board will begin negotiations with the province for funding.

Between 1996 and 2011, the school board completed 22 full seismic upgrades and three partial seismic upgrades and tore down and rebuilt three schools. Two new schools were also built. LEcole Bilingue was identified for repair in 2004. Parents were told renovations were imminent, said PAC member Cheryl Shizgal. She said parents have no stake in whether the school is renovated or replaced. We want a safe school for our kids.

COPE trustee Allan Wong said the unknown costs for clay brick buildings are concerning. There are other buildings in the district that are considered pre-World War One brick build schools and there are some preservation [work] in those.

He pointed to Laura Secord, which ultimately cost $24.7 million to upgrade. The school board does not need city approval to demolish LEcole Bilingue because it is classified as Heritage B, according to school board staff.

Chairperson Patti Bacchus, a Vision Vancouver trustee, said there is an urgent need to upgrade schools and referenced a small Italian town that was struck by a quake in 2002. Houses stood but a school was decimated. That terrified me as a parent, she said. We still have 50 more schools that need funding. We have to be strategic but we also have to think about what will happen if there is an earthquake in the city tonight.

Andrea Nicholson, a graduate from the class of 1975, spoke up in a question period at the close of the meeting. She has been campaigning to register the cultural heritage of the school, which was known as Cecil Rhodes until it became a French immersion elementary in the late 70s.

She collected letters from alumni, some hand-written by seniors, and felt her arguments have been cut out of the process. She said school administrators treated her with disdain and rebuffed her efforts to throw a centennial celebration. She said she fears school artifacts such as trophies and images have been destroyed.

School-vice principal Claudette Alain would not comment.

PAC member Shizgal has two daughters at the school and is also a graduate of LEcole Bilingue. I certainly am very sentimental about this school, she said, adding that concerns about heritage are valid but further delays are not something parents support.

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MHStewart

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