The Richmond School District has made its recommendations for elementary school closures.
Woodward, McKay and Dixon schools have been recommended for closure by Superintendent Sherry Elwood, following a year-long public consultation process and assessment of facilities by district staff.
A fourth school, Sea Island elementary, is also being targeted for closure in the “near future.”
In an eight-page report to the school board, Elwood states the closures may impact Richmond neighbourhoods in many ways.
“Elementary schools are communities of learning and social connection for neighbourhoods. Schools create a sense of belonging, caring and safety for families and staff. They are seen as resources for neighbourhoods, sometimes housing before and after school care, community programming and recreation activities as a complement to the education that occurs during the school day”
The closures, effective July 1, 2017, if approved by trustees, are a result of declining enrollment, which has led to many empty classrooms in several schools.
“In most of Richmond declining neighbourhood enrolment has resulted in under-utilization of school capacity. In some schools student populations are so small that the School District cannot offer the optimal range of programs. Trustees need to make a decision on which schools to close to ensure facilities are used in an effective and fiscally responsible way,” stated the district, as to its reasoning for the closures.
The Ministry of Education has stated the district must provide a “business case” for a school to receive much-needed seismic upgrades. According to the district the Ministry has stated a 95 per cent “utilization threshold” is the “guideline” for districts to qualify for upgrades.
Board chair Debbie Tablotney said she has her “fingers crossed” to see if the Ministry accepts the fact the three closures only bring Richmond’s utilization threshold from 85 per cent to 91, as per the report.
And if it doesn’t?
“Then we would be back to finding something else. I don’t even want to think of that scenario,” said Tablotney, noting the recommendations must still be finalized with a vote at the Oct. 17 board meeting.
Until then, trustees will set up closure committees to evaluate the report and the process.
By closing the three schools, the district will save $750,000 in operating costs annually.
If closed, the estimated 120 Woodward students will now need to walk to Kidd elementary, whose population will increase to about 280. The report states the students will still be within the recommended 15-minute walk to school, although parents have expressed concerns about crossing railway tracks and busy Shell Road.
Woodward requires an estimated $12.7 million in seismic upgrades, is the most below capacity, along with Grauer elementary (55 per cent), and has the highest operating costs per student.
Coun. Carol Day, a past school trustee who lives in Shellmont, has previously questioned the possibility of Woodward closing, considering new condos at The Gardens are being built nearby.
Meanwhile “most” of the 140 students at McKay will be within a 15-minute walk of their new school, Grauer.
Prior suggestions from district staff indicate that some schools may be completely rebuilt if they remain open, as seismic upgrades will cost as much or more than a new school. This may be the case for Grauer, as it requires the most costly seismic upgrade of all Richmond schools, at an estimated $16.3 million.
However Tablotney said a Grauer rebuild hasn’t been discussed yet.
The recommended closure of Dixon poses the most complicated scenario, considering it hosts an Early French Immersion program and runs at capacity.
Two options are presented to the board for Dixon’s closure.
The first option sees Dixon’s regular English-track students go to underutilized Gilmore elementary and its French students go to Diefenbaker elementary (creating an early and late French immersion program there). In this scenario, about half of the English students will have a long walk to school.
Diefenbaker would also require four portables, according to the report, as its population would balloon to an estimated 572 students.
The second option may impact friendships as it sees Dixon students split up, with those in the northern catchment going to Gilmore and those in the southern catchment going to underutilized Steves elementary. Additionally, Gilmore would take on some French students, meaning only one “short term” portable would be needed at Diefenbaker. The English students would have an easier walk to school, as well.
Parent activist Kelly Greene said she was "devastated" for Dixon and raised concerns for her children's education at Diefenbaker.
"Every student from Dixon and Diefenbaker will get a smaller share of library, gym and computer lab time, which is newly mandated in the curriculum," she said.
The report goes on to state that the board should consider initiating discussions with the community for closing Sea Island elementary, which only has 29 students and is an annex of Brighouse elementary.
Sea Island had initially been considered safe from closure, as it was geographically separated by the Fraser River.
Notably, the doors of Dixon, McKay and Woodward could remain open temporarily, if the district needs to temporarily close other schools for seismic remediation work (if the Ministry funds it). For instance, if Grauer is rebuilt, McKay could become a satellite school.
Blundell, Bridge, Diefenbaker, Errington, Gilmore, Grauer, Lee, Maple Lane, McKinney, Mitchell, Quilchena, Thompson, and Whiteside schools were all considered in a short list, earlier in the year.
It remains unclear what trustees will decide to to with closed school grounds.
When Steveston High closed, the district sold the 13-acre site to a developer for $41 million. Polygon Homes is now in the midst of selling 121 townhouses, starting at $1.2 million.
The $41 million sits in a reserve, needed for the purchase of land for a new elementary school in City Centre, where student populations have grown due to the construction of less unaffordable townhouses and condominiums.
Coun. Linda McPhail, a past school trustee, recalls closing five elementary schools in the early 2000s.
She noted the district sold Sidaway elementary while Kilgour, Rideau and Garratt elementary schools were repurposed in various ways.
As for the new site closures, “my preference would be to keep the green space,” she said.
“Once you sell it you don’t get it back,” said McPhail.