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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Is your old school about to be demolished?

Lessons to be learned from Charles Dickens Elementary in Vancouver

By Noel Herron

From the outside, Charles Dickens Elementary School in east Vancouver is the very picture of a modern and appealing contemporary school building with a circular sweeping entrance and decorative wooden beams slanting outwards from its roof and on three sides.

The building from both the front and sides looks lovely—the back is another matter entirely.

On top of that, this is the first elementary environmentally sustainable-LEED school building in the city with several cutting edge features to confirm this.

As school trustees at the time of construction approval five years ago, we were very proud of the latter accomplishment. But I wonder, despite our misgivings, if we really knew what was in store for this exceptional school-community when the building was completed. (Dickens has been recognized as a lighthouse school within the VSB.)

Appearances can be deceptive and when one visits this newly constructed school, speaks to the staff, examines the options that this divided school-community faced five years ago (when compelled by Victoria’s unyielding “area standards” requirements to demolish the 95-year-old structure that had a cherished place in the community), a vastly different picture now emerges.

At the centre of the controversy that raged for over two years prior to demolition—was the asinine and very costly, (as we now have witnessed) rigid requirement by the Ministry of Education that forces boards of education to accept the lowest bidder when new buildings go out for tender.

In the case of Charles Dickens Elementary, this led to the demolition of the old school.

It should be noted that many European jurisdictions allow their municipalities to accept bidders up to and including the median-priced submissions. This does not tie the hands of municipalities/school boards, and the flexibility allowed produces superior construction.

Not in BC. We stubbornly go the cheaper route when we rebuild our schools or start new school construction in this province and we make no allowances for flexibility. That is, unless your school happens to be in the premier’s Point Grey riding.

And we pay a price for this shortsighted policy with shoddy construction; leaking buildings with schools shrouded in tarpaulins; plus the inconvenience and disruption, of daily teaching-learning activities for students and teachers.

Victoria’s policy invariably leads to cheaper (and often disastrous) construction sites stemming from cost-cutting measures by successive builders as evidenced by the history of False Creek Elementary School. Renovated twice at a cost of over $2 million since it was built in 1977, False Creek school is but one example of poor planning.

And more recently, yet another example is found in General Gordon Elementary School in 2003 where the VSB reached an out-of-court settlement with the construction company that left a string of messy and incomplete projects in its wake.

Just as you should not judge a book by its cover, so the same should apply to new school buildings.

In the case of the 95-year-old Dickens building, it was very clear from the start that by forcing the Vancouver Board of Education (and thus the Dickens school-community) to accept the bottom bidder, Victoria in effect was bluntly saying to one and all: heritage features be damned, build your school the cheapest possible way.

The rigid constraints of the ministry’s official design sheet tie the hands of architects seeking to provide communities with a core building with a life expectancy of 90 years. With smaller classrooms, which reflect smaller class sizes, other spaces rated as a percentage of the gross space such as storage, health, administrative spaces, halls, and stairs are equally squeezed leading to awkward and ungracious structures.

And today, as a result of this squeezing at Dickens, we see the sad results. Apart from a larger, brighter gym and healthier air flow, the following items were noted:

  • Not a single heritage feature of the 95-year-old former building remains.
  • Classrooms are 25% smaller than in the old building, based on downsized standards.
  • The teachers’ staffroom, which doubles as a meeting room, is 30% smaller.
  • The principal’s office, used for parental interviews and to meet members of the general public, is a stamp-sized (8’ x 10’)—you have to see it to believe it.
  • The school’s music room lacks soundproofing and thus is totally dysfunctional.
  • Hallways are 30% narrower.
  • Storage space has been reduced by 80%.
  • Cupboards have toppled off the wall in one room.
  • The children will be without a school playground for at least two years until the project is complete (this now forms an unappealing, crater-pocked, landscape at the back of the school).
  • The school lost its external covered play area—astoundingly, Vancouver doesn’t have enough rain to qualify!
  • Two classrooms leaked badly eight months after opening, leading to leakages in adjoining rooms.

With BC now embarking on a $1.3 billion shovel-ready, school upgrading, and school construction plan—announced in the February 2009 budget—you can add millions more to this estimate, plus the hundreds of millions already allocated to correct the leaky-school syndrome as Victoria stubbornly continues to insist that school boards accept the lowest bidder.

This double whammy is a disgraceful waste of taxpayer’s money.

But note, as we approach the May provincial election, two schools in the premier’s riding, about to be renovated, will not only retain their old buildings and heritage features, but will be given added considerations, thanks in part to a generous $30 million deal.

Some school communities are more equal than others in this province.

Last month, Vancouver trustees approved four schools for seismic upgrading. Prior to this, due to persistent parental pressure and insidious comparisons with the favoured treatment accorded two schools in the premier’s Point Grey riding, Victoria was forced to allocate a 15% increase in the previously approved construction budget for these four schools.

Charles Dickens school did not receive this added 15% consideration (at the time of contruction) on what now passes for the seismic upgrading program under the BC Liberals.

If further confirmation of the politicization of this process is needed, Victoria has made it very clear that control of the upgrading of the Point Grey schools will be directed by the Ministry of Education, thus, in effect overriding the authority of the Vancouver board.

It is very clear from all of this that the era of the leaky-school

syndrome and of bad construction is far from over in BC schools and that raw politics still dominate the selection of schools for seismic upgrading in this province.

The lessons to be learned from Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver are indeed many, varied, and timely.

If only we pay heed to them.

Noel Herron is a former Vancouver trustee.

For additional information on Victoria’s design sheet go to: www.bced.gov.bc.ca/capitalplanning/resources/areastandards.pdf


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