Richmond schools dodge closure, ball now in MLAs' court

Board of Education held special meeting at Richmond secondary to terminate closure process for McKay, Dixon and Woodward elementary schools

Three Richmond schools have been spared from closure after the Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday evening to terminate a process that would have potentially seen the doors of McKay, Dixon and Woodward elementary schools shut for good.

Nearly 300 anxious parents and students packed a theatre at Richmond secondary to witness the vote that seemed like all but a done deal even before board chair Debbie Tablotney called to order the special meeting.

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One by one, with validating cheers from the audience, trustees announced they would vote to end the now 15-month long school closures process that has taken up significant resources at the Richmond School District.

Many of them cited a recent letter to the editor of the Richmond News from Liberal MLAs Linda Reid, John Yap and Teresa Way that claims the provincial government is now going to fully fund seismic remediation work for all high-risk schools in Richmond within its three-year capital plan and it will do so without forcing the district to reach a 95 per cent utilization target (which would have otherwise forced the district to close and amalgamate under-capacity schools), as previously ordered by the Ministry of Education.

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“This is our golden ticket,” said trustee Donna Sargent, holding up a copy of the Oct. 5 edition of the News.  

“When I saw the letter, I was a bit shocked,” said Tablotney, who has stated the Ministry has “flip-flopped” three times in determining the necessary standards for seismic upgrades.

Also at play was a large groundswell of support from parents and Richmondites to keep the schools open.

Through the process, a dedicated group of parents formed Richmond Schools Stand United to communicate their message to the community.

“I’m very relieved they made the right decision. They couldn’t move forward responsibly knowing the process was flawed,” said the group’s co-founder Kim Nowitsky after the meeting.

Nowitsky and RSSU parents had written numerous letters to the News, the district and the MLAs to raise concerns about seismic upgrades as well as the provincial politicians’ perceived lack of presence at numerous public consultations and board meetings, as well as two rallies. They frequently used the Twitter hashtag #WheresJohnYap.

Nowitsky said she’s aware the letter to the editor is just paper at the moment.

“If we leave it as is, they won’t follow through, which means we have to follow through,” she said.

Notably, the MLAs’ statement includes funding for only high-risk schools. Overall, 23 Richmond schools need seismic upgrades to varying degrees, according to the Ministry. Of those, 14 are considered H1, or at the highest risk of failure in the event of a major earthquake.

The district claims 21 schools are eligible for immediate Ministry funding.

Trustee Eric Yung said schools will now be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He said the fact Richmond is on a flood plain makes seismic remediation work that much more of a pressing issue.

“I’d be happy with seismic funding and better funding overall for the public school system in B.C.,” said Nowitsky.

Echoing Nowitsky’s sentiments were several trustees, who also took aim at overall education funding.

Yung reminded the crowd that the district is operating on a $2 million deficit after eating into a $9.8 million reserve fund.

“That is a limited-term solution,” said Yung.

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“We still have declining enrolment and we still have increases to operating costs that are not funded by the government, which means we will probably be running another deficit,” said trustee Ken Hamaguchi.

Trustee Sandra Nixon called on the province to reverse “systemic, chronic underfunding of public education.”

Sargent told the crowd that in her 14 years as a trustee she has never not had to make cuts to the budget.

“We need to advocate for stable funding, as well as safe schools,” said Tablotney.

During the hour-long meeting, a number of trustees stated that schools are not just for learning, but that they have intrinsic value for the community on the whole.

“It is not just a building, it is a hub for the community,” said Sargent.

“More and more, schools are needed to hold together a fragmented neighbourhood,” said Nixon.

Yung called on Richmond city council to back the district in procurring seismic upgrade funding immediately.

With the 7-0 vote, the board will now move on to updating numerous policies, preparing its annual budget, finding a site for a new elementary school in the City Centre area, and submitting its capital plan for the first stage of seismic upgrades.

To date, the district has submitted plans to upgrade Ferris, Steves, and Tomsett schools. Already approved by the Ministry is seismic work for Cook, Gilmore and Boyd schools. The schools would be refitted by 2020 or 2021. 

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