Time to Rebuild Our Schools – Letter to the Media

In the educational facilities review discussion ongoing in Vancouver it’s a shame that the discussion is being turned from educational needs of our children to a focus on UBC’s role as developer. UBC is cast as in someway being negligent by creating much needed and relatively affordable places for people to live. In other parts of the city such actions are lauded. But not west of Blanca. UBC has developed housing that reduces commuting, ‘eco-densifies’ the neighbourhood, and provides important social amenities to community members (our community is rich and diverse. We are students, families, new immigrants, UBC employees, and many other people who find living in a sustainable environment a plus). As with any large institution there are lots of things to complain about -however, in terms of working toward schools west of Blanca, UBC has been doing as much or more than any other developer in the lower mainland. We might productively ask why developers are not obliged to do more and pay for the social impacts that their developments cause, but to place all of that responsibility upon UBC is to allow the VSB and the provincial government to evade their responsibilities.

Last year the VSB submitted a proposal, developed by UBC Properties Trust, to the provincial government. Apparently the plan involved UBCPT financing the renovation and construction costs for a rebuilt high school west of Blanca. The lease agreement between UBC and VSB would have allowed VSB to pay back these costs amortized over 25 or 30 years. The provincial government is said to have rejected that arrangement.

It’s too bad that our provincial government refused to accept an arrangement that would have solved our school needs over a year ago. If they’d picked up the ball we wouldn’t be in the current crisis.

The situation for the 1,500 school aged and 680 preschool children living west of Blanca is serious. The two neighbourhood schools can only take in about 1100 of the children living here. Is it the fault of these children that the adults haven’t done anything for close to ten years? Should these children be made to pay the price of the inaction of adults? While adults bicker and call for moratoriums on the rebuilding of our schools hundreds of children -who are part of the Vancouver School District- are being deprived of their neighbourhood school.

The VSB plan is not perfect, but it is a plan that will put children into schools in their community. It will disrupt a few dozen children whose school is to be closed. This is never a happy thing to do. With care and good will any disruption can be minimized. We can always hope and pray for a miracle that will meet the needs of the many and the desires of the few. But, in the meantime it is time that we stopped blaming and started building.

Our kids deserve that.

Deputy Minister of Education -Report on Education (new series)

James Gorman, Emery Dosdall’s replacement, has finally released his first Report on Education. Following Mr. Dosdall’s last report we wondered if the new ND would follow in his footsteps. Well the answer is yes, but no. The first newsletter comes out with the announcement that it will now be a monthly affair. One thing that must be said about Mr. Dosdall (whether one agreed with his a approach or not) was that he was first and foremost an educator. Mr. Gorman falls more firmly within the career technocrat mold. He has held several posts more akin to chief financial officer then chief educator and, at least in this newsletter, it seems to show. Read it here.

Read past issues of the former DM’s newsletters here.

Tactics of Resistance and School Closures

In the ongoing struggle over school closings some tried and true methods are being applied. From the BCTF guide on how to save a school through Vancouver’s current struggles (see, QEA’s action page and Garibaldi’s attempt to forge community alliances) to the earlier wave of political actions including occupations and sit-ins in rural schools such as the embittered Forest Grove struggle) parents, staff and members of their surrounding communities have struggled to hold back the recent tide of school closures.

Not all schools are the same, nor are all situations of school closures identical. Factors leading to school closures, however, are consistently linked to declining enrollment and fiscal constraints.
There has been significant research into school closures and consolidations over the 20th century. This research can be said to, very loosely, identify two major moments or processes of school closure: (1) that linked to the decline of rural agriculture and rural resource extraction industries, and (2) that linked to late 20th century neo-liberal economic theories. Both are not of course truly independent of each other, but keeping them apart has a useful analytic value.

British Columbia’s economic history of the last 150 years is a history linked to rural resource extraction industries -forestry, fishing, mining. The early development of these industries required large flexible labour forces. In human terms, this meant the creation of quickly growing small resource dependent communities throughout BC. This process carried on fairly predictably until the mid-late 1970s. At which point global economic forces conspired with vested local interests to produce a wave of economic consolidation, rationalization, and concentration. In human terms -job loss, declining rural and resource community population, fewer bigger processing plants, and the combination of declining wages with growing profits. This economic backdrop provided the impetus to what I have described as the first moment of school closures, a process that had its primary impact on rural areas and smaller communities.

The processes described above also lead to the rise of neo-liberal economic theories as the primary guiding force of governments and the reigning popular orthodoxy. The implication for schools and other public interests is that a particular notion of ‘fiscal’ responsibility and accountability becomes the guiding principle. Backed by a common sense ideology that government is too big and taxes are a problem, public institutions have been forced to curtail expenditures and to reorganize themselves in ways that mirror the concentration and consolidation of BC’s resource extraction industries. In human terms? -Close schools to concentrate the production of measurably successful students in fewer sites of production (i.e. schools) that are larger and operated with fewer employees. This is particularly important to neo-liberal theorists as public institutions are seen as economic dead weights and thus the less one spends on them the better off a society will be. Many of the school closures in BC since 2001 have been closed as a result of neo0liberal economic theories operating as government policy.

The current proposal to close QEA is an excellent example of neo-liberal fiscal polices masquerading as educational policy. Here is a school that is functioning, doing a great job, but is planned for closure to meet a capital funding requirement. And, the capital funds are required because of provincial government policies. To be clear, the provincial government provides the money and sets the rules. The school board has to follow the rules and make decisions regarding its budget. The school board thus does indeed make its own decisions, but not under conditions of its own choosing. But by any other way (and despite surface appearances) it is the school board who are the shock troops of provincial policies.

The dilemma is that within the context Boards of Education can either accept the status quo (do nothing), accept the rules and do what the VSB is doing, or try and break the rules which would then lead back to the imposition of the status quo. Not really much of a choice.

Here are a couple of articles on school closing that may be of interest.

  • On the debate between small vs large schools (though small seems to be considered between 250 and 350 in this article).Download file
  • An article that reviews rural school closures in Denmark and questions the assumed devastating impacts that are often cited. According to the authors, rural school closures are a symptom, not a cause of problems of social cohesion.Download file
  • A review of data on school closuresin Australia and the fiscal outcomes.Download file
  • For a how to on closing a school check out:Vancouver Sun blogs