Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association (NPA) candidates for school board are proposing a new way to pay for future city schools: public/private partnerships.
“We have been promoting [the ‘no-cost’ model] and it’s no different from what we’ve done in the past. It’s just that we need to get it out there,” said the NPA’s Ken Denike.
The Vancouver School Board (VSB) has struggled to balance its budget over the past decade. With almost $900 million in upgrades on the books, securing funding for new schools is a challenge.
Currently, city council and the school board work together to determine where new schools are needed and what old buildings require upgrades.
The VSB then submits capital plan requests to the provincial Ministry of Education. The school board lays out its proposed projects in order of priority. The ministry then reviews education priorities from across the province and decides who gets the funds for which projects.
Related: Ten-year wait for new school ends
Denike is running for re-election as an NPA candidate on the Vancouver School Board. He wants to see schools built in the Olympic Village area and downtown at Coal Harbour sooner rather than later.
His plan is at odds with the view of Patti Bacchus, school board chairperson and Vision candidate. She disagrees with the NPA’s push for new schools on existing VSB land holdings like the one near Olympic Village.
“We haven’t identified a need for that currently. We don’t have the population there that would warrant a school,” she said.
School budget crunch
Last year, the VSB faced an $18.12 million deficit for the 2010-2011 school year. The board argued this was a result of rising costs coupled with inadequate provincial funding. The provincial government held firm that the problem stemmed from the board’s way of managing finances.
“In order to balance our budget, which we have to do by law, we’ve had to make cuts that now we’re up to about $80 million in the last decade [in] accumulated cuts,” said Bacchus. So far, most cuts have been to teacher and staff jobs.
Right now, the board faces an estimated $858 million bill to replace or upgrade 48 seismically unsafe schools.
“We’re always having to make a case and get in line for the kind of funding that we need,” said Bacchus. “These are large chunks of money in a province that, like everywhere else, is experiencing some financial pressures.”
Under the current system, the Ministry of Education would not approve new schools in areas with few students.
“The government is not going to build those schools while we have a lot of schools that are half empty,” said Denike. But the NPA thinks their plan could offer an alternative.
“We actually make money on [the Education Centre] because we get revenue back on that property from parking, from the cafeteria,” said Fraser Ballantyne, NPA school board candidate. The so-called “no-cost” model could give schools new buildings and extra funds.
If we build it, they will come
Denike and his NPA colleagues believe using the “no-cost” model would allow Vancouver to easily establish new schools on land already owned by the VSB.
A private investor would pay to build the new school building at the same time as creating space for tenants. The VSB Education Centre is an example of this. The school board owns a full city block at Fir and Broadway.
The Bentall group leased the land from the board for 99 years. In exchange, Bentall redeveloped the entire block. The centre now houses school board offices, retail outlets, other offices and parking space.
Bacchus is not opposed to this kind of arrangement, but she sees some major challenges in applying it to the Olympic Village and Coal Harbour sites.
Lot size and location are two areas of concern.
“Pieces of land that we have for those new schools are not, I don’t believe, nearly as large as some of the older sites in more established neighbourhoods,” said Bacchus. Smaller lots leave less room for additional development.
Private sector investment in Olympic Village might also be hard to find with existing commercial space sitting empty.
“I’m not sure what they think they would be building,” said Bacchus. More condos?”
But the NPA reasons that all neighbourhoods deserve schools regardless of student volume.
“We need to have quality education right across the city,” said Denike, “community builds around a school.”
The VSB facilities department is in charge of running future projections and identifying school needs. They look at enrollment figures and make recommendations about which areas need schools.
It is the job of Jim Meschino, director of the facilities department, to help figure out where schools are needed. He said determining what goes where is a fine balance.
“You’ve got to sort of strike it just right so that you know ‘okay, we can fill up that school, let’s get it built,’” said Meschino.
NPA candidates argue that schools are needed in every neighbourhood for community building and for public school retention. Denike feels that a partnership plan is worth a try.
“If we do not put those schools in, the kids that are in those areas are likely to go to private schools, not public schools,” said Denike.
It comes down to time and money. Vision candidates question whether the NPA plan would actually speed up the process. “If we go into a lease agreement with an outside user for ten years or more, [we] require ministry approval and that’s approved case by case,” said Bacchus.
Community consultation would also be required. “I think you could spend several years in consultation about that as well,” she said.