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Saturday, March 13, 2010

closing inner city schools in edmonton.

The threat of proposed school closures in inner city Edmonton has once again riled opposition MLAs into a frenzy on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. Declining student enrollment has led to Edmonton Public School Board to propose the closure of 11 inner city schools in January 2010 (Delton, Eastwood, John A. McDougall, McCauley, Norwood, Parkdale, Spruce Avenue, Capilano, Fulton Place, Gold Bar and Hardisty). It is difficult not to sympathize with the pleas of these MLAs' constituents, but each time that an opposition MLA rises to demand an answer from the Minister of Education about these closures the issue gets more muddied.

For the purpose of this blog post, I am going to ignore the politically charged and conspiracy driven accusations of opposition MLAs and focus on specific comments from two Edmonton MLAs:

Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Brian Mason:
"many schools in the inner city are in danger of being forced to close as the number of schools in Edmonton’s suburbs expand."
The proposed school closures have very little to do with the provincial government or the Department of Education and more to do with how our cities have grown over the past forty years. Edmonton's Public School Trustees are ultimately responsible for the fate of these schools and the reality is that young families are not moving into the inner city in the numbers needed to keep these schools operating. They are moving to the suburbs and to the outlying municipalities in the Capital region, which have experienced unbridled urban sprawl in recent decades. The reality is that there is a market demand for single-dwelling residential properties (contributed to by both cost and the desire to have a detached home with a yard).

Having grown up in one of Edmonton's outlying communities, I can testify that it was a great environment to be raised. As someone who has lived in the urban core since moving to Edmonton, I know that there are some areas that I would not want to raise my children. This said, continued urban sprawl is not a solution to Edmonton's growth challenges. The further our city sprawls, the more expensive it will be to provide the kind of services that are idealized. Urban sprawl is unsustainable.

Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald:
"If the city of Edmonton increases population density in the central neighbourhoods as planned, we will need the student spaces now being considered for closure."
Inner city communities, like Alberta Avenue, have taken exceptional steps to challenge stereotypes and create more family friendly environment in their neighbourhoods. New residential and commercial development in downtown Edmonton as well as the development of the City Centre Airport lands over the next 20 to 30 years could create an inner city renaissance that could breath new life into Edmonton's inner city schools.

If Edmonton's urban core does witness a population density increase that attracts more young families, it is very likely that these school buildings, could be available to be reopened. As far as I am aware, it is undetermined what would be done with these proposed closed schools. Kevin Kuchinski has written a blog post on the potential usages for these schools if closed.

Well-funded special interests like the Katz Group have been focusing their energies on convincing Edmontonians that the urban core would be revitalized through the public funding of a new arena. A new arena could have some economic benefits to the downtown core, but it does not address the larges societal issues facing the core or how our cities are growing. If urban sprawl is unsustainable, what are our municipal leaders doing to create an inner city that is friendly and welcoming to young families? Urban sprawl is the root cause of the school closures decision facing our elected School Board Trustees.

When School Trustee and City Council candidates start knocking on doors before the October 18, 2010 elections, Edmontonians who care about the future of our inner city neighbourhoods should remember that the school closures are not the result of a nefarious political agenda, but a result of how we have let our city to grow.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this perspective. Keeping a building open without a number of students with a choice of appropriate programs does not make a school.The school board's job is to keep the students' education at the forefront. It is the community's responsibility to make sure it is vital not just the school board or the children they are charged with educating.

Christopher Spencer said...

School closure is a very complicated topic. With respect, Dave, I think you've missed a few key facts.

The province provides funding to operate and maintain the physical plant of a school based on the number of children enrolled. However, not all buildings have the same needs: it costs less to keep up a new school in the suburbs than it does to repair and eventually renovate a facility built 50 or 100 years ago. Provincial policy essentially encourages districts to think of their buildings as disposable.

It is also fair to criticise the province for its utlization formula, which measures how well school boards are using facilities based their size. There is no differentiation between classroom space and gymnasiums, boiler rooms, computer labs -- well, the entire physical plant of the school. Old buildings tend to have wide hallways, vestibule entrances and significant supportive infrastructure. Schools such as McCauley and Spruce Avenue, which are actually pretty decently used in terms of real instructional space, measure as being half-full or less because of a presumption that math could be taught in the hallways, social studies in the bathrooms.

The good news is that Alberta Education recognizes that the utilization calculation makes no sense. It has communicated to every superintendent across the province that a new formula will be introduce in the fall. People who work at senior levels in the ministry tell me they are startled that the Edmonton Public School Board is going ahead with closures, when it has been made clear that the rules are about to change.

Alberta Education will also be introducing a wrap-around schools concept, to encourage the establishment of preschools, day cares and other services for children in unused educational spaces. In neighbourhoods where there are 200 K-6 kids, but room for 400, the school could be filled with partnerships, making continued operation of the site viable. Indeed school boards could make money leasing classrooms to for-profit child care providers.

Your point on sprawl is, of course, on the mark. Does the future of growth in Edmonton have to be like the past? The Globe and Mail reports that in Vancouver, the number of children living in the core has doubled in that last 10 years. Meanwhile, the Urban Land Institute has issued a warning to real estate investors that the next generation of parents will prefer infill to the suburbs. Suburban schools, it is specifically noted, are about to suffer severe depopulation. Closer to home, the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues has created a taskforce to envision family-friendly multi-unit housing.

Edmonton's new municipal development plan, which does have flaws, at least gets right the need to encourage families to settle in established communities. The Vancouver bylaw -- 25 per cent kid-friendly units in major infill projects -- has been imported, almost word-for-word. One of three major initiatives in the McCauley attendance area, the Quarters, all by itself, is expected to provide housing for 20,000 people. If that number includes just 200 more K-9 students, McCauley would be filled to bursting -- presuming, of course, the EPSB doesn't shut it down next month.

Reviving central neighbourhoods requires a team effort, with the province, city and school board working together. Right now, the entity stuck in its silo is the EPSB. Absolutely voters should keep that in mind when they mark their ballots in October.

Anonymous said...

Schools should be built entirely modular so they can be moved around to reflect population demographic changes.

The whole notion of the way schools are built and installed is outdated concept.

Sean S. said...

excellent post Dave.

Anonymous said...

If it is more efficient to bus the children in these neighbourhoods to other schools, we should close the inner city schools and concentrate on efficiency as opposed to some ideological hangup.

Anonymous said...

Bravo to 11:55 and 12:11 for common sense!

Stop all the bedwetting about school closures.

jerrymacgp said...

Dave, this is one of your more Edmonto-centric posts. We in Grande Prairie would love to have some of these problems. In this city, new schools are over-capacity even before they open. Virtually every new school opened here in the past 10 years has had to have portable classroom units installed before the first student even walks the halls.

Party of One said...

I don't think closing the schools necessarily means getting rid of the real assets, that is, razing the buildings and selling off the land.

The buildings and land could be used to develop other community needs, such as day cares, senior drop in centres, food banks, media resource centres, playgrounds, parks and physical fitness facilities, perhaps even municipal government service centres.

I do think it's pointless and self-defeating to try to develop in-fill housing without accomodating future educational needs, however. So the land and buildings should NOT be sold,but should be "re-purposed" until they are needed again as schools. In the interim, while the city and EPBS would lose provincial funding for these locations, there could be some income generated there that would at least sustain the infrastructure present.

SD said...

Great post, Dave. Edmonton faces a huge challenge in making inner-city neighbourhoods more family friendly. Crime, aging infrastructure, and poverty are all issues that need to continue to be on the fore-front of public debate. Until these issues are addressed, Edmontonians will rightly choose not to raise their families in these neighbourhoods and schools will need to close.

Anonymous said...

The fact of the matter is that the problems faced by the inner schools and mature neighbourhoods will repeat as suburban ones age and population changes. The advantage of current mature areas are: pleasant places to live, close to amenities, mature green areas and public services.

Edmonton has an opportunity to use the lessons learned in other cities and a chance to show a "vision" that embraces and respects our future needs. "Think global, act local" and let's be respectful of each other.

Albertagirl46 said...

Thanks Dave for posting about this issue. And thanks Christopher Spencer for the additional information and insights. More helpful than the idiotic "bedwetting" comment from anonymous at 01:44am.

If busing students is okay then why are they worrying about building new schools and simply bus the kids from the new schoolless areas to existing schools. I would think it cheaper than building new schools.

The issue that school closures really expose is the silo mentality of the levels of government. My question to Alberta Education is why did it take you so long to realize that your utilization formula doesn't make sense? And what makes us have confidence that you will get it right this time?

The idea of wraparound schools is a sensible one. What about including community league facilities and city libraries as well with a school. It is time to review the 19th Century concept of stand alone school buildings.

Laurie Simpson said...

A response to 12:11 and 1:44.

My name is Laurie Simpson. Unlike the previous anonymous posts, I have no problem attaching my name to my ideological points of view.12:11 said "close schools and concentrate our efficiency as opposed to some ideological tangent." Closing schools is not about some ideological tangent. There are real people involved and real children whose lives are affected by the closure of schools. My oldest son was a straight A honours student when EPSB decided to close his school. Now he is failing many of his courses. As well, he decided to tell no one when his 'new' school was flooding, 'why would he care?.'You need to remember that the students that you cast off today as incidental tangents are the citizens of tomorrow that you will be looking to to help you when you are older and what have we taught them? Further to that, neighbourhoods are cyclical, a fact that EPSB never brings into the equation. In fact, they will provide data that is four years old to 'prove' their point that a neighbourhood is not hosting young families and will deny all evidence to the contrary. We all know that tearing down old to build new is NOT a sound financial policy but this is exactly the short-sighted approach that is being taken. It is easy to judge when you are on the outside looking in and basing your opinions on hearsay rather than fact. If you would like something more substantial for your opinions, here are a few things for you to mull over. EPSB is NOT closing the schools with the lowest enrolments. In fact some of the schools up for closure this year have met and exceeded enrolment benchmarks. They are not closing the buildings that are most in need of repair. This is evidenced by the sudden switch in EPSB ratings from Good or Acceptable to Marginal whenever a vote for closeure comes up. Strangely enough these 'marginal' buildings are being handed over to other groups within mere weeks with no repairs done. Further, EPSB has no magic wand to predict where student populations will amalgamate in the future. Schools that were considered necessary in the 1990's are now suffering their own declining enrolment. There are no FACTS and no RULES governing school closures. It is a 'process' that happens one neighbourhood at a time. And it is very difficult to find others outside of that neighbourhood to help. This new move is the most reprehensible of all. Let us take populations that are already marginalized and let us remove all hope from their children and then let us see what kind of world that we all want to live in. Fortunately, there are people, people who believe in 'doing what is right' rather than doing what is expedient. I applaud those people. And none of us are bedwetters and few of us live in the neighbourhoods that are now being threatened. BUT, we have seen the effects of this process and we refuse to be silent, because we know that our children are our future and we are NOT going to create a society where those children are secondary to political rhetoric.

Brad said...

Christopher Spencer is dead right in everything that he says. Probably the biggest single factor, whether in Edmonton or Calgary (which is experiencing the same issue) is the Alberta Education funding regime - the dollars are allocated on the basis of students registered rather than infrastructure and community needs. That's why we've seen more and more "specialty" schools (soccer academy; fine arts; and so on) - it's no longer about providing an education, it's about attracting enough students to remain viable.

Can you say, "Marketing"? Since when is education about "marketing"?

Laurie Simpson is also bang on. Both from the perspective of the impact on students, and from the perspective of impact on communities. Schools are what bring communities together

Before I had kids, I didn't know any other than my immediate neighbours - and even then it was more a case of recognising thier faces and knowing they lived close by than knowing their names or anything about them. After I had kids in school, I knew everybody in the neighbourhood that had kids in school. And we came together on all sorts of community issues as they arose - the least of which was school issues.

As usual, the anonymous posters are the ideologues - not the other way around. "Bed-wetters"? Give your head a shake.

The youngest of my 3 kids is 20. I know about the importance of neighbourhood schools in ways that cannot be measured in terms of "cost/student". That is merely the tip of the iceberg.

And finally, one of the major Recommendations that Mayor Mandel's Safe Communities Task Force made was that schools be utilised as community "hubs" in off school hours, as a safe place for adults and children to come together in positive activities - to provide a place for "legitimate" activities, to counter the ever-present plethora of readily available "illegitimate" activities, especially in the very inner city neighbourhoods where the schools are identified as deserving of closure.

And this wasn't based on ideology - it was based on science.

Anonymous said...

Edmonton should never have allowed housing development to have begun anywhere outside of the Henday ring road. If we can't exist within the giant footprint that ring road provides, we're doomed to repeat the worst mistakes of the bigger US cities. Living within the ring road's artificial confines would have still given us a larger landmass than Manhattan operates within.

Sadly City Council is all beholden to developers, so we'll get to keep paying higher and higher property taxes as the city swells outward like some giant bloated doughnut. It will become harder and harder to maintain basic services and meanwhile the city's core will become an even worse place to live, especially once most of the schools there are gone and the families leave.

Anonymous said...

I actually rather like the term "bedwetter" as offered by anon at 1:44am. Seems to aptly describe the endless unproductive angst of those unwilling to grasp economic and demographic realities.

Anonymous said...

Why would I want to live in a dense city governed by social engineers like the previous poster preaching and forcing their ecopussy lifestyle on me.

I want my own house and large yard. If I am deprived of this opportunity, I will live somewhere else that does offer this to me like Calgary or Saskatoon.

Party of One said...

"I want my own house and large yard"

That's fine. But don't expect others to subsidize the cost of providing you services. My taxes shouldn't be covering the costs of your self-indulgence.

Kevan Warner said...

" it costs less to keep up a new school in the suburbs than it does to repair and eventually renovate a facility built 50 or 100 years ago " I'd hazard that as untrue. I see no school built within theh last twenty five years that has the same lasting power as, say Norwood. Measure apples and oranges not snapshots. The costs of new schools should be separated from that of maintianing old ones entirely. Like busing. - Why is it cheaper to bus to the suburbs rather than part way from the suburbs? That too seems more political than economic. The real problem, perhaps, is that we have separated all these groups so that it really has no solution for a simple- single- board or council to solve.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those "selfish" Edmontonians who gets frustrated when I read all the posts from those who think I should do my part and live in an older neighborhood just so I can combat urban sprawl. Why do you expect me to spend my money on an infill or the cost of renovations to an older house to live in an area with crumbling roads, higher crime and far from all areas of the city unless you're fortunate enough to live close to the henday or the whitemud. I want the simplicity and the cost savings of a newer home and yes, that means I will be living in the burbs and my children will be attending school in the burbs. Give me a better option than a a 50 year old house in a crumbling neighborhood and I may be willing to consider it.