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A lunchtime soccer match takes place near the Olympic Village in Vancouver, on Oct. 7, 2008. The number of school-age children is growing in neighbourhoods closer to Vancouver's city centre, but many children are stuck on waiting lists for schools closer to home.The Globe and Mail

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets parents in a lather faster than the lack of available space for their child in a school close to home. Most of us, if we lived in the city, grew up being able to walk or bike to school. Increasingly, that’s not the case in Vancouver. There are schools aplenty but they’re not all in the same neighbourhoods as the kids.

The mismatch came to the fore this month as parents living near 12 oversubscribed city schools learned whether their kindergarten-age children won an admission lottery.

This year, almost 400 children were on a waiting list, according to numbers gathered by Lisa McAllister, who lives in Olympic Village, a growing inner-city neighbourhood with no school. Her daughter is among those who lost out in a lottery; she’s 50th on the waiting list at Simon Fraser Elementary, two kilometres away.

This year’s numbers are up drastically over last year’s, when 269 children were initially on a waiting list, Vancouver School Board numbers show. After the dust settled and parents made choices – some got coveted spots in French immersion programs or other specialized programs – 115 students were placed in schools outside their catchment area, the VSB stated.

Although Vancouver’s population is growing, public-school enrolment has been dropping steadily since 1997, and the downward slide is expected to continue for another decade. Schools in some of the less-populous neighbourhoods are hollowing out.

Meanwhile, the number of school-age children is growing in neighbourhoods closer to the city centre, where urban pioneers are raising families with a lighter environmental footprint in smaller homes with greater access to transit.

It’s hard to untangle who exactly is at fault for the disconnect, because so much depends on perspective. But it is clear that political interests and an absence of co-ordinated planning between the school board and provincial and municipal governments are key factors.

The provincial government, which funds new schools and is bankrolling expensive seismic upgrading for old ones, insists it doesn’t have the cash to build new schools unless old, underused schools close. It blames the VSB’s failure to make tough decisions for the stalemate. The VSB complains it is chronically underfunded and rightfully points out that closing neighbourhood schools hurts neighbourhoods and alienates parents.

It makes sense for the province to question why new schools should be built in Vancouver when there are old ones with space to spare. Consolidating schools in areas with few children would save money that could go toward building new ones where needed.

But it’s also true that families form strong attachments to neighbourhood schools, and it’s politically risky for school boards to talk about closings. Every time the VSB contemplates such a move, the ensuing backlash usually causes it to backtrack. Closing schools might also backfire against the provincial NDP, which has strong support in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, city council merrily continues to approve new developments, many of which are in walkable inner-city neighbourhoods and around transit routes. Plans are made for schools; developers are often required to set aside land for new ones. But that doesn’t mean the money is there to fund them; witness the empty space in Olympic Village. Children in that neighbourhood, and there are loads of them, attend schools further afield, mostly not within walking distance.

The provincial government points out that the Olympic Village school is now the VSB’s top capital priority. But the school might have been built quicker if the VSB had considered a money-saving proposal put forward by the province. The province proposed closing Queen Elizabeth Annex as a public facility and leasing the space to a French school in search of a home. That plan would have freed up money for capital projects such as the school at Olympic Village. The VSB rejected the idea, ergo the Olympic Village school remains a patch of dirt.

It’s a big mess that won’t be sorted out any time soon. Eli Puterman, whose kindergarten child lost the lottery for a spot at Crosstown Elementary sums it up this way: “The VSB and Ministry of Education have been going at it so long, they forget families are being majorly inconvenienced.”

He’s dead right about that. The adults are in the schoolyard fighting. As for the kids, they’re stuck in the middle.

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