Vancouver schools and the election

The school board elected Saturday faces tight budgets, changing enrolment and kids in poverty

Education isn’t the hottest subject in the Nov. 15 civic election. The sight of people sleeping on our streets, the cost of buying or renting a home and snarled traffic are immediate realities faced by almost all Vancouverites, so it’s not surprising politicians tackled affordable housing, homelessness and transportation first.

But you don’t have to have kids to care about the challenges faced by the Vancouver School District. Who wants to see students unable to attend their neighbourhood school because it’s full or to hear that kids fail to learn because they’re hungry and feeling stressed?

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These are the concerns that occupy the thoughts of outgoing VSB superintendent Steve Cardwell, who leaves his job at the end of December to serve as professor of teaching and director of executive educational leadership at the University of B.C. He emphasizes that making decisions about budgets and policy at the board level is complex given the diversity across the city’s school district.

Voters need to select nine trustees from 29 contenders Saturday. Those elected will help guide the board for four years. Fewer than 35 per cent of eligible voters in Vancouver cast a ballot in the last civic election in 2011. Some perceive trustees lack any real power because the board is so dependent on money from the provincial government.

But Cardwell says trustees play an important role.

“The greatest voice is in the parents and in some ways the trustees represent the will of the larger community and especially parents,” Cardwell said during a recent interview. “Our board attends provincial meetings, speaks, probably more so than many, with respect to the needs of the public education system.”

He hopes more Vancouverites vote this time around compared to 2011. The stakes are just too high.

“We have 55,000 students. We’ve got over 100,000 parents that have a real stake in our education system and fewer than 40 per cent voted,” he said. “They need to exercise their democratic right to vote and have influence on our education system by voting for school trustees and voting for the city, for the mayor and council, as well, as part of this, and when provincial elections come around, of course, for them, too.”

The Vancouver School Board oversees 92 elementary schools, 18 high schools, seven adult education centres and the largest distance education school in the province. Vancouver schools serve some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Canada and some of the poorest. Fourteen per cent of students participate in a school meal program.

The VSB hires about 8,000 full- and part-time employees and serves approximately 55,000 students, 49,832 of whom are in kindergarten to Grade 12. Of those elementary and high school students, 60 per cent speak a language other than English at home and 25 per cent are designated as speaking English as a second language. More than 125 languages have been identified in Vancouver schools.

Every year, as they have for at least 12 years except 2005, senior school board staff and trustees agonize over the cuts they’ll have to make to balance the board’s budget, as required by the School Act of its key funder, the provincial government.

The amount of money provided per student by the province hasn’t dwindled, but funding hasn’t kept pace with rising operational costs. These include pay and pension increases negotiated with student support workers, office staff and outside workers on behalf of the government for 2012 to 2014, but not funded by the government.

Last year, the VSB cut more than $9 million to balance its budget.

The six Vision Vancouver trustees opted to preserve the district’s elementary band and strings program, the athletics coordinator, area counsellor, educational psychologist, speech language pathologist and teacher and support staff peer mentoring positions by using $2.5 million from the board’s emergency reserves. The move left $530,000 to cover the unexpected, which in previous years has included lower enrolment, reduced revenue from international students and the installation of hand-washing stations during the H1N1 outbreak. The then-three Non-Partisan Association trustees voted against using the reserve money.

As soon as the 2014-2015 budget was completed, senior management started working on the 2015-2016 budget. With money from the reserve fund nearly gone, Cardwell says trustees will have to figure out another way to handle the looming shortfall and continue to support teaching and learning.

“That’s a huge challenge,” he said, nodding his head for emphasis.

Cardwell says staff predict a $25 to $27 million shortfall for 2015-2016. That figure won’t be so high by spring because the board typically finds surpluses and the province releases additional money. The initial predicted shortfall last year was $28.7 million.

The board’s preliminary operating budget for 2014-2015 is nearly $500 million. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 91 per cent of that amount comes from the provincial government.
  • Six per cent hails from revenues, mainly international students followed by fees and rentals. 2.5 per cent comes from the prior year’s operating surplus.
  • 0.6 per cent originates from the local capital fund, including the $2.5 million taken from reserves.

Cardwell is hopeful the government is starting to listen to school districts’ concerns.

The government’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services last year recommended the provincial government:

  • “provide sufficient funding for the K-12 system to enable B.C. students to become top performers nationally; and address cost increases for school districts (e.g. rising BC Hydro rates).”
  • “develop a comprehensive capital plan for educational facilities that takes into account increased maintenance and aging school facility upgrades; and continue the seismic upgrading program.”
  • “review the increasing demands on school district budgets and ensure that funding is appropriately directed to meet the growing support required for students with special needs.”

The VSB will receive roughly $1 million to fund additional support staff in classrooms this year as a result of the collective agreement reached in September. It will receive a smaller amount of money to hire additional teachers.  

The VSB contends it would need $54.3 million in additional funding to match service levels offered in 2002-2003. Boards want adequate, stable and predictable funding.

“If we had multi-year funding, let’s say a three-year budget, we could then have more certainty in the system,” Cardwell said, adding the provincial government will undertake a funding formula review this year.

Voters should consider how trustees and their parties have said they’d deal with budget shortfalls.

Vision and Green candidates say they will continue to lobby for more money from the government. Green candidate Mischa Oak has identified areas for greater savings and revenue. Green, Public Education Project and COPE candidates say trustees need to galvanize the broader community into lobbying the provincial government for adequate funding. NPA candidates say trustees need to work more collaboratively with government and to seek grants and donations from other agencies, which could include corporations such as Chevron, which has become a point of contention between Vision and the NPA. Green candidates say the

VSB should review its policy on corporate donations with teachers and parents. Vancouver 1st candidates say if the trustees set clear priorities based on current, and not previous budgets, there wouldn’t be a funding shortfall. COPE candidates say they won’t be complicit in further cuts to the education system and suggest they wouldn’t submit a balanced budget. COPE says it will push for the government to make funding for public education a priority and eliminate funding for private education.

The NPA says it would provide at least five more instruction days by reducing district closure days, which the Vision-dominated board has continued to save $500,000 per year.

All of the candidates who responded to the question of whether they’d support selling VSB property to bring in more money said they wouldn’t at the District Parent Advisory Council’s trustee forum Oct. 23. But Vancouver 1st candidates Ken Denike and Sophia Woo subsequently said the board should hand the Kingsgate Mall property it owns over to the province to hasten long-term plans for new elementary and high schools in the Southeast False Creek and International Village area.

When they’re not worrying about the budget, trustees need to worry about buildings and bums in seats.

Twenty Vancouver schools are at, over or approaching capacity. Most of these schools operate downtown and near South False Creek.

Another 23 elementary and four secondary schools see enrolment under 68 per cent capacity. Most of these schools are on the East Side.

The NPA says it won’t close neighbourhood schools, and incumbent chairperson Patti Bacchus says the Vision-dominated board made that same commitment in 2011. NPA incumbent trustee Fraser Ballantyne said last April, however, the board could have closed five schools instead of digging so deeply into its reserve fund to balance its budget. Oak also specified he wouldn’t close schools.

The school board manages enrolment with policy on out-of-catchment enrolment and choices about where it situates district-wide programs such as French and Mandarin immersion and Montessori. It maintains pressure on the provincial government to fund seismic upgrades and replacement schools and for money to construct new schools.

Ballantyne suggested last spring that if space was needed for area students, school administrators should advise parents of cross-boundary students their son or daughter may need to enrol in their home school for September. Currently, the board aims to inform parents as soon as possible that their children may not be able to attend their neighbourhood school.

District-wide enrolment in kindergarten to Grade 12 has been declining for years, with the district losing close to 1,000 students per year for several years. Enrolment has shrunk by 7,743 students from 57,575 in 1997.

But associate superintendent Scott Robinson reports registration has started growing at the primary level across the district over the past three years. The decline is now closer to 400 to 500 students per year and the VSB expects the decline to end within the next four years, at which point the district expects to see an overall increase in enrolment.

Registration is expected to grow over the next decade as housing density increases in the downtown core and more families choose to live there. Cardwell says he’s met with a joint city, park and school board committee on development and planning every six weeks for the last two-and-a-half years.

A new elementary school will be constructed downtown at International Village. The school board has air rights for an elementary school in Coal Harbour and another in Southeast False Creek, but the province has yet to commit money to their construction. Another high school will eventually be needed downtown to accommodate the influx of elementary school students. New schools will also likely be needed in the Marine Drive/Cambie area if families flock to new, denser housing.

King George secondary in the West End will need to be replaced, and Cardwell says the board will consider high-rise schools there and elsewhere.

“Do we just build a single-purpose school or do we build a school that has multiple uses, brings in some of the community assets and community amenities that are functional besides the school place,” he said. “And are those school sites, if they’re in a high-rise, are they flexible spaces so that you can adjust based on enrolment in 20 years, 30 years and convert them back and forth from community use to school use?”

Cardwell says the board is developing a strategy where under-capacity schools would be used as swing spaces for schools undergoing seismic construction when students cannot be accommodated on the building site.

The provincial government is no longer funding portables.

“We might have to split primary/intermediate,” he said. “You can imagine, 18 high schools and many of them still needing upgrades. It’s a challenge to empty out a school of 1,200 students. Where do we put them?”

The district and the provincial government recently signed an agreement for a seismic management office that Cardwell hopes will speed up the completion of such projects.

The board estimates it has eight schools under some form of development or construction each year for the next 10 years.

“That’s equivalent to the VANOC Olympics,” Cardwell said.

The VSB saved the district’s oldest schoolhouse from demolition by leasing it to Green Thumb Theatre in 2012. The board hopes to rent out the old Sir James Douglas elementary school that stands near a seismic replacement and the board is proceeding towards demolition of the old Sexsmith elementary school near East 58th Avenue and Main Street, where a seismic replacement school was constructed. The property remains embroiled in a court case with a Francophone school board that wants the education minister to order the VSB to lease it the building.

To save $600,000 in rental costs a year, the VSB moved the Main Street Education Centre for adults into Gladstone secondary this September.

Now the board is consulting the John Oliver secondary and Carleton elementary communities on the seismic renewal of these schools.

“My view of a school is no longer the single-purpose brick schoolhouse on a large piece of property,” Cardwell said.

He sees co-located childcare as the top priority, followed by other social services.

“But there are other aspects that could be there from community centres to post-secondary opportunities,” Cardwell said.

Some school properties are multi-zoned and could include affordable housing.

Child poverty is such a concern to the two main mayoral candidates that investing more money in school breakfast programs became one of the first bones of contention in this election.

Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson promised his party would double the amount of money dedicated to the VSB’s breakfast program to reach 1,300 kids a day if Vision retains a majority on council and school board. The NPA’s Kirk LaPointe contends Vision pinched the idea from his consultations with the community.

Whatever the case, the Re-visioning Inner City and CommunityLINK Resources in Vancouver Schools consultation and report the board completed last year sees three tiers of support for schools. The two neediest tiers, based on provincial statistics about income assistance and the numbers of children in foster care, will be served universal breakfast and lunch programs.

The highest concentrations of poverty are at Macdonald, Strathcona, Grandview, Seymour, Britannia and Thunderbird elementary schools. Queen Alexandra elementary at Broadway and Clark and Tillicum annex combined with Hastings elementary fall in the middle tier. Nightingale, Selkirk, Cook, Fleming, Henderson and Roberts are in the third tier.

The six neediest schools will receive a pre-kindergarten program, a special education assistant in each kindergarten class, a full-time literacy specialist, counselling services, other support workers and out-of-school programming.

Fourteen schools were previously designated Inner City. The revised model includes Fleming elementary at Knight and East 49th and Lord Roberts elementary in the West End as needing extra support, whereas

Mount Pleasant elementary and General Brock elementary, near the partially rebuilt Little Mountain social housing site, have dropped off the list.

The board is identifying how to track progress on helping kids in poverty to guide future staffing decisions. Most of the changes related to the tiered system won’t happen until September 2015.

The board traditionally reviewed and adjusted its inner city school program every five years but VSB associate superintendent Maureen Ciarniello says trustees decided to take a broader look at the program because they were hearing about pockets of poverty growing in unexpected places and increasingly complex needs.

First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition reported last November that B.C. has the worst rate of child poverty of any province in Canada, at 18.6 per cent

The inner city program draws $2.9 million from the board’s operating budget. That doesn’t include money for food, aboriginal and special education supports, coordinators who link schools and students with support services and youth and family workers, so trustees wanted to make sure that money was being well spent.

Ciarniello says the board is trying to build flexibility into its tiered system to respond a little more swiftly to needs and to follow students beyond schools. The board is also working to provide food programs for students who need them at schools that aren’t designated inner city.

Ads were placed nationally Halloween week for a new superintendent.

Trustees will be elected Nov. 15, sworn in in December and then one of their first tasks will be to choose the person who will act as the board’s CEO, ideally for at least five years.

“It’s the only hire that the board is responsible for,” Cardwell said.­_Rossi

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