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Michael Hooper in front of Queen Elizabeth Annex in Vancouver on April 15.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Parents on Vancouver’s west side are objecting to the possible closing of a small Dunbar school, saying the school board’s plan to get rid of the valuable land doesn’t consider the massive population growth expected along with several new residential towers.

Michael Hooper, a parent at Queen Elizabeth Annex who volunteers with the parent advisory council, is frustrated with the plan and said it is a reflection of the board’s lack of long-term vision.

“The VSB is totally unique. I haven’t heard of anybody actually thinking they’d like to take their rapidly appreciating land and turn it into rapidly depreciating cash. The only reason they’re doing it … is because the Ministry of Education refuses to fund schools in Vancouver unless they do this,” said Mr. Hooper, who is also a professor of planning at University of British Columbia.

Ken Su, treasurer of the parent advisory council, said it’s easy for the board to suggest that QEA, which currently serves 71 French immersion students in grades kindergarten through Grade 3 and sits at around 73 per cent of its capacity, is an insufficient use of resources. But he said that’s not necessarily the real motive behind the closing. “What you’re seeing here is the province effectively holding the VSB hostage by, you know, not providing funding for other areas,” Mr. Su said.

The VSB is facing demographic and legal pressures to accommodate students in other areas of the city, with declining enrolment in some schools up against an overflow in more recently developed areas. But in the past the provincial government has said it won’t help until the board cuts costs. Complicating matters is a civil claim brought forward by the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, the public francophone school board.

Parents argue that developments, with an emphasis on more affordable housing, planned for the west side – including Senakw in False Creek, the Jericho Lands in West Point Grey, the Broadway Plan and various housing projects at UBC – will bring with them an increase in school-aged children.

The board does not see that influx as a reason to keep QEA open, said deputy superintendent David Nelson. ”We have other options and opportunities to address any enrolment growth on the west side without this site.”

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Mr. Hooper is frustrated with the VSB’s long-term planning for Queen Elizabeth Annex.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

While the board and ministry debate, students and parents are anxious to learn the future of their school. This is the fourth time since 2008 that QEA, which is located just east of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, is facing closure.

In January, the school board voted to take the plan to a public consultation period. The district says the closing would save the district as much as $300,000 annually in operational costs. The school, which was built in 1964, is a contender for closing because it has a high seismic rating and an estimated deferred maintenance cost of $2.6-million.

School board chair Janet Fraser said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that she encourages “all Vancouver families and the broader public to participate in the engagement activities as it will help inform the board’s decision.”

Also a factor in closing the annex is the lawsuit from the CSF, which serves children who have a French-language or French-education background under minority-language right guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (French immersion, on the other hand, is provided by the anglophone boards.)

In 2019, then Minister of Education Rob Fleming promised to fund a new Olympic Village school if the Vancouver School Board transferred QEA to the CSF. The CSF filed the civil claim in 2020, against the province, the Ministry of Education and the Vancouver School Board, referring in part to the board’s decision not to close QEA. The board did not proceed with the closing at the time because it did not have a long-range facilities plan, which determines site priorities into the future, in place, but did approve such plan in 2021.

The province has been struggling to provide new schools for the CSF since the Supreme Court of Canada ordered B.C. in 2017 to find more space for francophone schools.

The CSF said it could not provide more details while discussions were still occurring with the VSB.

Mr. Nelson said while it isn’t the school board’s job to solve the needs of the CSF, the board does have unneeded school sites. He said the closing of QEA could allow for the VSB to sell or lease the site to the CSF, which would provide the VSB with funding. More generally, closing certain schools can be beneficial to the VSB, said Mr. Nelson, because it reduces the board’s overall capacity, putting it in a better position to lobby for new schools or additions where it needs them.

The school board most recently sold land beneath Lord Roberts School Annex in Vancouver’s west end to BC Hydro for an underground substation in 2018. And last year, the school board voted to declare a portion of land at Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary School as surplus and authorized the beginning of the land disposition process.

In the meantime, parents at QEA appreciate its small size, but believe growth is an option. “There is tremendous value to a small school,” Mr. Hooper said. “there’s a sort of camaraderie and warmth there ... I think most people would actually be keen for QEA to grow and even grow dramatically.”

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