Vancouver parents say province is wasting money seismically upgrading 98-year-old school

Costs of replacing Edith Cavell elementary cheaper in the long run, according to report

Parents at Edith Cavell elementary say the province is being short-sighted and wasting taxpayers’ money to fix up their old school to make it safe in an earthquake, when they could spend slightly more to build new.

The province is willing to pay $15.6 million to seismically upgrade the 98-year-old school on Vancouver’s West Side, ignoring deferred maintenance issues and a required expansion, but it isn’t willing to pay $21.2 million for a new school. On the face of it, that may seem like a prudent fiscal decision, but when the costs of operating the building are spread out over 40 years, building new would actually save nearly $2.5 million.

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“With a provincial NDP government, it’s really shocking the way they are handling this,” said Kevin Harris, Cavell Parent Advisory Council seismic committee spokesperson, who has two children at Cavell, with another ready to start kindergarten next year.

“They are basically following in the footsteps of the Liberals, piggybacking on all of the political agenda the Liberals had and the tactics they used and they’re just continuing them, which doesn’t really fit with their political base.”  

Yes, in the short term, money would be saved by simply making the old school safe in an earthquake. But in the long term, doing only the seismic upgrades, while leaving other maintenance problems to fester, will be more expensive, the project definition report shows.

A 2016 Vancouver School Board report found $700 million in so-called deferred maintenance at Vancouver schools. This is maintenance that needs to be done but hasn’t been funded. At Cavell, asbestos, lead paint, silica, mercury and PCBs have been found. It’s not known exactly what other deferred maintenance is in the building, but the project report lists an extra $6 million in maintenance costs over 40 years if the school is upgraded versus replaced.

But there is even more at stake. Cavell elementary is just west of 20th and Cambie. As anyone who has driven down Cambie Street in the past decade knows, that area is booming with construction. Along with the Canada Line has come massive development, which has filled up all of the schools nearby.

It’s common in the neighbourhood to find two to four single family homes knocked down and replaced by either 50 to 70 midrise apartments or 20 to 30 townhouses, the same project report says.

Cavell is already full, with four portable classrooms on site and four in-catchment kindergarten students were turned away this year and sent to Shaughnessy elementary, which is two catchments away.

The VSB has requested an expansion and could have one approved as soon as late spring 2019, the board’s communications department said in a statement.

But an expansion is not part of the project approved by the province. That’s likely because there are about 5,000 empty seats in Vancouver schools, mostly on the city’s East Side. The overall picture is complicated by the fact that schools in some areas — such as along the Cambie corridor — are full to overflowing, while they are mostly empty in other areas.  

“[The province] wants schools closed, and the VSB is not making those hard decisions, so we’re stuck in the middle of this fight,” Harris said. “I think the government is doing this because there is a political appetite to get as many seismic projects done as possible before the next election.

“I think they’re doing this because they’re not happy that on a district-wide basis, Vancouver schools are under capacity and the VSB over time hasn’t been able to successfully address that.” 

Pointing fingers

When asked why the province is only funding seismic upgrades and not an expansion or the required maintenance, the Ministry of Education appeared to be pointing fingers everywhere. In a written statement, first the ministry said the former Liberal government failed to adequately move Vancouver seismic projects forward, leaving 64 at risk schools in need of upgrades. Then it said it approved the proposal the VSB put forward and it includes upgrades to the electrical and plumbing systems as well as asbestos removal, where necessary.

Cavell parents are also upset the plan is to bus their kids all the way to Boundary Road near Imperial Street during the renovations. Students will be at two different schools, making it difficult to have a school community, and they will have to bus for up to 45 minutes each way.

The ministry pinned that decision on the VSB, too, saying boards of education decide where displaced students will attend school. On the plus side, the ministry said it was pleased to hear that the VSB’s new trustees and staff are meeting with Cavell parents to consider best options.

Harris says parents across Vancouver should be paying attention, because more than 50 other schools still need upgrades and those parents may find themselves in the same position. Trustees appear to have little say over the process, possibly due to changes made in 2017 when the board was run by a government-appointed trustee, Harris said.

“This doesn’t make any sense, any way you look at it for our school, but fundamentally the process has changed,” Harris said. “…That’s going to be a huge problem for every other school in Vancouver that’s going to be going through this.”  

The Ministry of Education said there had been no changes to the role of the VSB in the seismic project office decisions since the office opened in 2014.

Board chair Janet Fraser said after the October election the board appears to have very little decision-making ability on these projects.

“It seems as though we can approve the project office’s choice or not have a project,” Fraser said.

When asked again this week about what the board could do, she said the new board hasn’t yet had a chance to discuss Cavell.

“I anticipate it will be a priority of the board to work with the ministry, noting the framework of the MOU, to address the issues raised by the Cavell school community,” Fraser said in an email. “As the expansion project was submitted in our last capital plan I hope this can be coordinated with the seismic project.” 

Tough choices

The next few years are going to be challenging ones for the Vancouver School Board — as Harris says, there are tough choices to be made. With aging schools, uneven enrolment and a crazy housing market, it will be a delicate balancing act.

It’s critical that schools be made safe in case the big one hits and the NDP government has made commendable progress on that. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pour more than $15 million into a 98-year-old building that’s not already big enough and is in need of repairs, to say nothing of bussing kids nearly 10 kilometres to school every day. Let’s hope saner heads prevail before this project goes ahead.

 

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

 

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