A newly elected school board tries to undo inner-city school closures. But does it make sense?
By Eliza Barlow | September 1, 2011
Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal
In May, a letter to the editor appeared in the Edmonton Journal that conveyed the depth of emotion at the heart of the debate over closing aging schools in Edmonton’s city core.
The writer lamented her “profound sense of loss of our history” as she walked past the “grand old schools” of Eastwood, McCauley and Parkdale – all closed by Edmonton Public Schools in June 2010 because of shrinking student populations.
Those schools were not only a place to learn, wrote Christine Ritter, but “also a link to our short, rich and diverse history and their closure has severed that link to our past.
“Children and teachers in these schools used to provide a living connection to our collective history as Edmontonians and their closure was not only a loss to the neighbourhoods, but a loss to us all.”
Talk about hallowed halls.
Should schools be put on such a pedestal? Or should they be regarded as mere buildings, where Edmonton’s children receive an education as efficiently as possible?
“We don’t want to get into a position where the city is hollowed out and everyone goes to the suburbs; on the other hand, you need to provide schools where the kids are,” saysEducation Minister Dave Hancock.
The debate is gathering steam, thanks to last fall’s municipal election, which saw six new trustees voted onto the nine-member Edmonton Public School Board.
Previously, when a school’s student population dropped too low and showed little chance of rebounding, the school would be considered for closure. The board closed five schools in June 2010 alone, all of them in so-called mature neighbourhoods. That September, weeks before the election, six public schools were opened in new neighbourhoods far from downtown, such as Tamarack in the southeast and Rutherford in the southwest.
But the new board, many of whom pledged during the campaign to try to save older schools, is seeking to break that cycle.
In short order, they approved a two-year moratorium on school closures.
“I don’t suffer any illusions that all schools should be open for all time, but I have concerns that closing schools has become the first choice instead of the last resort,” says board chairman Dave Colburn, who’s in his third term as trustee and first year as chairman.
But the moratorium didn’t go far enough for the board. In the spring, it revised its capital plan to put renovation projects for aging schools in old neighbourhoods at the top of its priority list, and new school construction at the bottom, for a year.
Among the upgrading projects given higher priority are more than $8 million in renovations to Highlands School. The school, built in 1914, was operating at 51-percent capacity one year ago, and has seen a drop in enrolment to 205 students from 262 in 2006. Compare that to Earl Buxton Elementary School in Terwillegar which, according to the latest EPS report, is at 87-per-cent capacity, and grew by six per cent since 2006.
According to those reports, the cost of unfunded student space at Highlands was $183,376 in the last school year. Comparatively, Earl Buxton’s unused space cost just $49,121 and Riverbend School, at 92-per-cent capacity, cost EPS just $38,295.
Meanwhile, building new schools in the city’s teeming southwest, such as a planned K-9 school in Terwillegar Heights and a K-6 school in Heritage Valley, has been pushed to the bottom of the list.
For now, the capital plan shake-up appears to be largely political posturing. It was the board’s way of “making a statement,” Colburn says, adding that cash for new school construction wasn’t expected this year anyway. “Even though we’ve reordered our priorities this year, we’ll be reexamining our capital plan next year. What we want to do is highlight to government and our public that our present practices are in need of revision.”
Colburn says the board wanted to draw attention to an urgent need to upgrade and modernize older schools.
“If an infrastructure deficit is not addressed, we continually face pressure from the province to pull limited education dollars from other areas to address infrastructure needs,” says Colburn, who pegs the cost of bringing Edmonton public schools’ infrastucture to an acceptable level at $242 million.
Hancock acknowledges the need is there. Shortly after the school board reversed its priorities, the province announced $550 million for school projects across Alberta.
On the list for Edmonton were modernizations of Strathcona and Forest Heights schools – but no new construction.
Hancock says, “It fits their capital plan by happenstance, but it would have been that way anyway. We’ve [built] a lot of new buildings and we need to focus on the modernization [of older ones] .”
Hancock rejects suggestions that new schools have been built at the expense of older schools in the inner city. “New schools have been built in burgeoning, growth areas. They’re all full … which indicates that they’re needed.”
Meanwhile, schools in the inner city “were built on an old model where you had a school on every block,” and that model isn’t sustainable now, he says.
And while Hancock says it’s the board’s prerogative to set its own capital plan, he cautions that if trustees were to request funding for a school that the government didn’t believe was viable in the long term, it likely wouldn’t be awarded.
In the meantime, with the district running at around 67-per-cent capacity, the moratorium will mean the board will have “some tough decisions to make,” says Hancock.
He says it could mean the board is keeping schools open that don’t have the student bodies to warrant funding for various programs. “That’s something they will have to be accountable to their publics for.”
Despite how emotional the debate has become, Colburn says the board’s position is based not on sentimentality but on a “cold, hard, logical view of the issue.” And its pledge to ask what Colburn calls “the hard questions” has led trustees to delve into issues around city planning and urban sprawl, issues from which Colburn believes the board can’t divorce itself.
Families with children are a crucial demographic for neighbourhoods, Colburn suggests, so each time the board closes a school, it pounds another nail in the coffin of the inner city. “The reality is, every time we ask for a new school in an outlying area or close a school in an inner-city neighbourhood, whether we accept it or not, we are a part of urban planning.”
Colburn is a clear proponent for living in the core. A resident of the Bellevue neighbourhood near Rexall Place for the past 22 years, he admits he can’t really relate to people who reject the mature trees and character of the core in favour of moving their families “10 miles from downtown.”
“I think some people have concerns about life in the inner city, what the environment is like, safety, transiency. I think people are attracted to the notion of a nice, shiny, relatively new home,” he says. “People bring different values to the table in that regard.”
A map on Edmonton Public Schools’ website, included in a 2008 facilities plan, shows the starkness of the demographic shift over the past two decades, and that most families would rather have that nice, shiny new home – no matter how far from downtown.
The map shows the change in student populations in different sectors of Edmonton from 1984 to 2007. Nearly every sector even close to the city centre registered a decline, while all areas closer to the outskirts of the city, with the exception of the northeast, had increases. Southwest Edmonton, for example, saw a whopping 53-per-cent increase in student population.
While Colburn is definitely an advocate for the inner city, he insists he’s not trying to influence where families choose to live. “We’re not going down that road of discouraging people to move out [to new neighbourhoods] . We’re not going into that level of governance.”
But Coun. Bryan Anderson, whose southwest ward includes many of Edmonton’s high-growth new communities, fears if the board were to continue denying new schools for new neighbourhoods, it could push people even further from the core and out of Edmonton entirely. Anderson says sprawl does not mean subdivisions within Edmonton, but bedroom communities like Sherwood Park, Beaumont and St. Albert, where people pay taxes even though they use Edmonton’s infrastructure. He believes families will opt to live in those cities if they don’t find schools where they want them in Edmonton.
“If they want a single-family home and a school in a community and there is no provision of those things when they start looking at those neighbourhoods, they might go to Sherwood Park or St. Albert, where there’s a school down the street,” he says. “That, long-term, could promote urban sprawl.”
However Coun. Ben Henderson, whose ward is home to many mature neighbourhoods, slams that theory as “lowest common denominator” thinking and claims many people are looking for a way to come back to the core. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to live in the outlying suburbs, but we’re not giving them the choice,” he says.
Henderson praises the school board for trying to break what he calls the endless “chicken and egg” cycle of school closures and migration to the suburbs. “There have been a vast amount of schools opened [in new areas] and a whole lot of schools closed. It really is just going back to an equilibrium.”
He believes if something isn’t done to reverse the tide, the schools being built now will face the threat of closure in a few decades. “The places where we’re closing schools now are the suburbs of 30 years ago.”
Even Anderson concedes it wouldn’t be prudent for the school board to “close and dispose” of all its inner-city schools, given the city’s goal of becoming more compact. Rather, he says, programs could be combined and some of the schools kept, perhaps dormant or temporarily leased out, waiting for future students. “It could sit, and if inner-city development occurs in a given neighbourhood and there are a given number of children appearing, then a school could be reopened.
“It would be a shame to say, ‘Geez, we had a school here but we got rid of it.'”