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Building a New School Isn’t a Simple Process

Amidst intense development and concerns of overcrowding at schools in the university neighbourhoods, the question is being asked: when will a new school be built?

There is of course a simple answer to the question of overcrowded schools. Build a new school.

And so, as the university has developed plans to double the population of its residential neighbourhoods, it has reserved a plot of land at the corner of Birney and Ross Drive in Wesbrook Place for a new school.

The land is there for the asking.

The Vancouver School Board says there are enrolment pressures at both elementary schools serving residents of the UBC neighbourhoods and endowment lands, even though it projects a decrease in enrolment.

To deal with the pressure, the board’s capital plan for 2022–23 proposes a new elementary school on the south campus—that’s Wesbrook. It would accommodate 350 students and cost $29.2 million.

The capital plan is sent to the provincial education ministry every year because it’s the province that provides the funds for new school construction. The board says the school has been in its capital plans since 2012.

“The funding has yet to be approved by the ministry,” board spokesperson Jiana Chow said.

But it’s never that simple. First, the capital plan sets out priorities, and the board lists the proposed school as a five-year priority, the lowest priority there is.

It’s understood that UBC is ready to lease the land for 99 years at minimal cost whenever it gets the firm go-ahead from the school board.

That, says the VSB’s Chow, has not yet happened. “UBC would only grant a lease when certainty exists for funding of a new school.”

The site of a proposed school in Wesbrook Place, which is currently being used as a staging ground for the construction of a residential building and townhouses. (Photo: Emmanuel Samoglou)

The Ministry of Education and Child Care says it only funds new construction once the school board secures a site. “At this time, the project is listed as a Year 5 priority by the VSB and a site has not been secured. Any projects listed in Year 4 and 5 are considered more of a notional nature and may require further refinement in future 5-year capital plan submissions.”

But once schools get built, there’s a question whether they are too small to begin with. Norma Rose Point was only opened in 2014 with a capacity of 792 students. Enrolment now stands 740. So in 10 years, it basically filled up.

“What that tells me is that Norma Rose Point was not built large enough,” says Suzie Mah, a board trustee representing the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

From idea to school construction also takes a while. Steve Cardwell, the former superintendent of schools for the Vancouver board and now of the Institute for Public Education BC, notes that a new school for the Olympic Village went on the planning books in 2013 but was identified even earlier.

This year, the government announced that it is providing $150.6 million for the school, which will open in 2029.

So, schools do get built and the province does spend the money to get them built. The government says it has provided $526 million in funding for new construction in the Vancouver School District as well as funding for seismic upgrades and school expansion.

But the process is far from simple.


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