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Suzanne Ma in her Olympic Village neighbourhood in Vancouver on July 22.JESSE WINTER/The Globe and Mail

When Suzanne Ma and her husband bought their condo in Vancouver’s Olympic Village almost a decade ago, they were told there was a parcel of land next to the nearby park where a school would be built.

The couple thought that, by the time they started a family, the school’s construction would definitely be under way.

They now have a son who is just about to turn four and will start Grade 1 next fall. But the neighbourhood school – first identified in city planning documents 15 years ago – is still nowhere in sight.

Last month, the province approved a concept for the school, but there is still no timeline for when it might open.

For Ms. Ma and many other parents in one of the city’s fastest-growing neighbourhoods, that tiny advance seems meaningless.

“We’re not that much closer to where we were,” she said.

Capacity utilization rates of elementary and high schools in Vancouver and Surrey

Based on 2021-22 enrolment numbers

City boundary

High schools are triangles

VANCOUVER

0

3

Per cent of

capacity utilized

KM

Below 60%

60 to 80%

0

3

80 to 100%

KM

100 to 120%

Over 120%

No data

SURREY

UNITED STATES

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; VANCOUVER SCHOOL BOARD

Capacity utilization rates of elementary and high schools in Vancouver and Surrey

Based on 2021-22 enrolment numbers

City boundary

High schools are triangles

VANCOUVER

0

3

Per cent of

capacity utilized

KM

Below 60%

60 to 80%

0

3

80 to 100%

KM

100 to 120%

Over 120%

No data

SURREY

UNITED STATES

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; VANCOUVER SCHOOL BOARD

Capacity utilization rates of elementary and high schools in Vancouver and Surrey

Based on 2021-22 enrolment numbers

Per cent of

capacity utilized

Below 60%

60 to 80%

City boundary

80 to 100%

100 to 120%

High schools are triangles

Over 120%

No data

VANCOUVER

0

3

KM

0

3

KM

SURREY

UNITED STATES

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; VANCOUVER SCHOOL BOARD

That’s also the state of affairs for thousands of parents in cities throughout the Lower Mainland and other areas that have seen booms in family populations but waits of a decade or more for school spaces. Even when a new school opens, it is sometimes above capacity by the first day.

The problem isn’t unique to Vancouver. Suburbs such as Surrey, Coquitlam and Richmond have seen similar issues for years.

The mismatch between school space and families with children isn’t just a minor inconvenience. It forces thousands of parents to drive their children to schools where there is room or load them onto buses, both environmentally unsustainable options.

Sarah Payne moved to Burke Mountain in Coquitlam 10 years ago. She bought in a rush, caught up in a high-intensity real estate market, but noticed there was a site up the street that was to be the future home of Burke Mountain elementary school.

“That was a big reason we moved.”

She has spent most of the past decade driving one child or another to schools much further away, including the neighbouring city of Port Coquitlam.

“It causes mayhem and chaos at drop-off and pickup times,” Ms. Payne said.

In Surrey, Karen Tan, a long-time activist parent, said the district never seems to catch up.

“As soon as a brand-new school is opened, it’s full to capacity,” she said. New schools are being built, but “they’re just chipping off the old list … it’s so slow.”

Carolyn Broady, the president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, said other areas have run into the same problem.

“It’s not just in Vancouver,” she said. “We now see it in other places on Vancouver Island as we see the shift of families out of the city.”

Ms. Broady said everyone is struggling to get all the levels of government – school boards, city councils, the province – to work together and ensure that land is set aside early for schools or not sold to developers, that good population projections are done and that there’s an efficient process in place for getting schools built.

“Richmond had a site, but it took so long to get permits that costs went up,” she noted, which only delayed the project further.

Some school districts, such as North Vancouver, have sold schools that were under capacity at the urging of the province, only to find a few years later that a development has brought hundreds of families into the area.

The provincial government acknowledges that there is huge demand for new schools but points to how much building it has already done.

“Since 2017, to date we have invested nearly $2.8 billion for new and expanded schools, seismic upgrades and site purchases for future schools throughout B.C. This investment includes over 130 major capital projects including 69 new/expansion projects (including site acquisitions) and 59 seismic projects,” said a statement from the Education Ministry. “Under the previous government: 2012 [to] 2017, they invested in 81 major capital projects including 38 expansion projects and 43 seismic projects.”

The ministry did not make anyone available for an interview.

Critics of the current process have pointed out over the years that there are still huge inefficiencies in the way school boards, cities and the province work.

Vic Khanna, the outspoken and frustrated vice-chair of the Vancouver school district’s parent advisory committee, says that board’s enrolment forecasts make no sense.

“The VSB is forecasting a decline, including in areas where the schools today are full, like Henry Hudson, where they have kindergarten lotteries.”

Hudson elementary is also the closest school to the huge new Squamish Nation housing development at the south end of Burrard Bridge, a project that envisions 10,000 new residents within the next 10 years.

Recent census numbers show that the biggest increases in the numbers of school-age children in Vancouver were in areas such as the Olympic Village or the River District, where there is a lot of new apartment development.

But when the Vancouver School Board was asked whether it has planned schools for some of the massive new development on the horizon – through new programs such as the Broadway Plan, the redevelopment of Oakridge into a municipal town centre and several new Indigenous-led developments throughout the city – the board said in a statement that “it is too early to speculate on the student yield” from these projects.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen endorsed a new plan in 2018 that envisioned more density in certain areas as a way of attracting families to villages such as Naramata, whose elementary school is down from 100 children in 2000 to about 70. Former regional district director Michael Brydon said there is support for additional density when it is linked to the possibility of saving schools or improving local health care facilities.

The city council in Delta, at one time the archetypal family-oriented suburb, has pushed to allow new housing development in some areas, such as Ladner Village and Scott Road, as its population of school-age children has steadily declined. Last year it saw almost 300 fewer children in its schools than the year before – about four times the rate of student population decline as Vancouver on a per-capita basis.

But those efforts seem to be rare. Instead, school boards and the province end up in years-long tussles over money for new schools in growing areas when there are schools in other neighbourhoods that are not full.

And the lengthy bureaucratic processes do not seem to be changing.

According to the Vancouver School Board, the long-awaited school near the Olympic Village will need to receive approval of its concept plan, then more detailed feasibility work before, eventually, a capital project funding agreement is reached. At the moment, the agreement between the board and the province says funding has to be in place and construction started no later than Jan. 31, 2024.

For many parents, that’s simply too late.

Ms. Ma said some families have moved away and some have been commuting to a school. Her family is considering both options, along with sending their son to a private school next year.

“I can say a lot of emotional things to reflect my anger and frustration. But honestly, I just want them to get their ducks in a row and build the school.”

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