Vancouver council votes to fast-track new elementary school for Olympic Village

A view of Vancouver's Olympic Village neighbourhood in Southeast False Creek. Google Street View

Vancouver city council has voted to find a way to fast-track a long-sought elementary school for the Olympic Village neighbourhood.

The official development plan for the southeast False Creek community from 2007 anticipated an elementary school to be built in the area, with hopes it would be ready for students by 2020.

Land remains set aside for the project, but so far no school has been approved or funded — while nearly every other amenity a neighbourhood could need has been running for years.

Coun. Lisa Dominato’s motion calls for staff to develop a way to expedite permit approvals for new Vancouver schools, and to work with the Vancouver School Board (VSB) and the Ministry of Education to get shovels in the ground.

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Specifically, the motion calls on the province to prioritize capital funding for the school.

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“I think many families moved into that area in anticipation of there being a local school,” Dominato said. “As a city, we’ve indicated we want to get people walking, with walkable neighbourhoods. And a local school is part of that.”

Several parents who live in the neighbourhood attended Wednesday’s council meeting where the motion was approved, echoing Dominato’s concerns.

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Without a school within walking distance, the existing catchment school for the area is Simon Fraser Elementary on 15 Avenue and Columbia Street.

Many parents described to council having to cross busy Cambie Street with their children during rush hour to get to the school.

Dominato notes Simon Fraser is well over capacity. Her motion notes the school receives nearly triple the kindergarten applications it can handle from within the catchment alone. The school also has at least two portables.

That has sent families to seek education for their children elsewhere, often ending up at schools well outside the neighbourhood, which Dominato says is contributing to air pollution and traffic congestion.

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Dominato is suggesting at the very least, the city could lease the city-owned land for a modular school while a more permanent school is established.

The land set aside for the school sits adjacent to Hinge Park at the bottom of Columbia Street, just a block away from Olympic Village Square.

The VSB has included seeking provincial funding for an Olympic Village school as a top priority in its 2020-21 capital plan.

In a statement, the board notes it has been asking the ministry for the school since 2006, where the project was slated for the third year of the 2006-07 five-year plan.

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“District staff and trustees appreciate the challenges of awaiting a new school poses for the community and remain committed to working with the Ministry of Education and the City of Vancouver to get a new school built,” a spokesperson said.

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Dominato notes in her motion that the province could re-allocate funding acquired by the VSB in the sale of the Lord Roberts Annex to BC Hydro, some of which was originally slated for a new school in Coal Harbour.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education says it has received the VSB’s capital plan and noted its mention of a school in Olympic Village.

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But it said it is focused on seismic upgrades to 62 of Vancouver’s existing schools, to which the province has committed $2.7 billion.

“Currently, the Vancouver School Board has a large number of surplus seats with many schools operating below their intended capacities,” the ministry said.

The ministry added 350 of those surplus seats are within two kilometres of Olympic Village, appearing to contradict information from the city and the VSB about Simon Fraser Elementary.

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Dominato said she’s disappointed by a similar response she received from Education Minister Rob Fleming this summer, saying it doesn’t address the true issue.

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“If we want to reduce our carbon footprint, if we want to have walkable neighbourhoods, maybe we should look at having smaller schools,” she suggested. “We have large areas of the city that are densifying quickly. How do we respond to that?”

Dominato is hopeful that if the city and VSB is able to expedite the process and secure funding from the province, a school could be built within three years. But she adds it shouldn’t have had to take this long.

“Parents wanted this school yesterday,” she said.

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