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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver elementary schools off the chopping block

Prolonged, heartfelt public opposition to the proposed closing of five elementary schools has prompted the financially beleaguered Vancouver School Board to call off the pending shutdowns, for now.

Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus said Sunday that she and other Vision Party members, who hold a majority on the board, intend to support a recommendation by superintendent Steve Cardwell that no schools be closed until March 1, 2012, at the earliest.

All schools on the chopping block are on the more economically challenged east side of the city and have been hit by declining enrolment.

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At a series of public meetings earlier this fall, however, parents and community activists spoke emotionally about the role the schools played in melding their difficult neighbourhoods.

"What we heard absolutely convinced us that closing those schools is not the right thing to do," said Ms. Bacchus.

"The vibrancy of the city is very much tied to the vibrancy of its schools. If you start boarding up schools, that sends out a negative message."

Closing the schools, several of them century-old heritage structures, would cut about $1.5-million from the projected $9.6-million budget deficit the board is facing for the next fiscal year.

"That's just a very small piece of the gap," said Ms. Bacchus. "Even if we did close these schools, we would still be pursuing cuts [in other areas] and there are simply too many costs associated with closing schools that go beyond the financial impact."

In his report, to be voted on by trustees Dec. 14, Mr. Cardwell noted that the school board heard "loud and clear" from the public that schools represent the "heart of the community and soul of the neighbourhood."

"Closing a school would be seen by many as a major blow to the community," the superintendent said.

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The recommended moratorium is designed to give all parties, including the public, time to map out additional, more comprehensive uses of schools within their immediate neighbourhoods.

The Vancouver School Board has already implemented more than $17-million in spending cuts to balance its current deficit. Trustees blame the provincial government for not providing enough money to cope with education needs in the district.

Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Sunday she wasn't perturbed by the recommendation to avoid school closings, despite a recommendation by one of her officials earlier this year that Vancouver should shut schools to save money.

"It's their decision, not the ministry's," said Ms. MacDiarmid. "I await further developments." She reiterated that there would be no increase in the government's announced education funding. "I've made that clear."

Meanwhile, rival NPA school trustees lashed out at Ms. Bacchus and her supporters for spending more than $100,000 on public consultation, only to put off any decisions until after the next municipal election in November, 2011.

NPA trustee Carol Gibson said some areas have overcrowded schools, while others have empty desks. "We can't just keep avoiding this problem by putting it off."

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