Dave Colburn: How to save inner-city schools from suburban sprawl.

By Dave Colburn

Dave Colburn walks and talks with daughter Spence.

When the Edmonton Public School Board ended its two year moratorium on school closures in Nov. 2012 it generated a good deal of public discussion. Parents and communities wanted to know what this new world would mean for schools with falling enrolment. People speculated on whether this moratorium had achieved anything and offered views on what the Board should do next.

The media analyzed closures, infrastructure and the board’s responsibilities. Our own planning department weighed in and talked of infrastructure challenges and different strategies to deal with closures. Even the City of Calgary saw media reporting their City Council wanted to play a greater role in closure decisions.

As a three-term trustee on the board, and former Board Chair, I have seen my share of school closures. The district closed 14 schools in my first 6 years on the board. Closures that reached into the inner city in the spring of 2010 (McCauley, Parkdale and Eastwood) were particularly divisive for the board and the city. People and organizations that had never taken a position on closures addressed the board in an historic six and half hour marathon Board meeting on April 13, 2010.

At the end of the evening a majority of the board had approved all five closure recommendations. I opposed those recommendations. In the weeks that followed I was increasingly convinced that the city had reached a saturation point with closures.

Early in my 2010 campaign for re-election I called for a moratorium on closures. Fairly quickly, school closures became a municipal election issue. Mayor Stephen Mandel, standing between both the public and Catholic board chairs, in the summer of 2010, called for new solutions. Trustee candidates began to openly discuss closures and commit to a moratorium, if elected. On November 30th, 2010, following a record turnover on the board that saw six new trustees elected, the board approved a two year moratorium on school closures.

In addition to a respite for communities facing possible closures, the board was also determined to undertake an exhaustive analysis of closures in order to build support for communities and lessen the likelihood of closure. A moratorium committee presented a report on school viability and closures, and a series of public meetings was held over the next year to discuss the findings of this report. This board response was unprecedented. Never before had the issue of school closures been so thoroughly and publicly analyzed. On Jan. 31, 2012, a series of recommendations, submitted by the committee, were approved by the board. As a member of that committee, I believe we gathered all possible information on closures, brought our best intelligence to the table, transparently engaged our public, and made recommendations that will create better supports for schools. I believe the public would support this work.

Lack of joint planning between the city and the district, sprawl created by the City of Edmonton’s growth strategies and inadequate, often arbitrary funding from the province all create enormous pressure on the district to close schools. In the winter of 2010, I successfully introduced a motion to begin tri-level discussions with the city and province on school closures and related issues. At first meeting of these three levels of government a senior minister described the initiative as “overdue and a new model of urban planning.”

The board moratorium committee, in Jan. 2012, recommended both the Catholic and public boards meet annually with the city and province to discuss joint planning. Following the mayor’s Community Sustainability Task Force, the Elevate report, released in Feb. 2012, made its top recommendation to “bring together the four jurisdictions (federal, provincial, municipal, school boards) to create innovative partnerships….to assemble a new urban agenda.”

So is anything really different? I would say yes, there are encouraging changes. It is reasonable to expect that three levels of government will be involved in future urban planning.

Schools will be closed in the future. How can this be done respecting the needs and views of communities? In an Andrea Sands article in the Edmonton Journal on January 13th, 2013, Edmonton Public’s Director of Planning, Dr. Lorne Parker spoke at length about the replacement school model. I very much like this model. The idea would see a number of schools (say 3 or 4) in close proximity to each other be closed, and, in return, a new school built to serve communities experiencing closure in the area. It would require gov’t commitment to fund a new school in return for closures. It would require authentic public consultation. Many groupings of schools in the district that would qualify for this approach.

Finally, I think this board’s extraordinary response to community concerns over school closures has reaffirmed, in a very public manner, the importance of community in any school closure decision. I am hopeful that we will never see again, as we did in 2010, a school closure discussion that does not mention the word community once.

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Dave Colburn is a three-term school trustee and former chairman of the Edmonton Public School Board who lives in Edmonton’s Bellevue neighborhood, one block from Bellevue School, which was closed in 2003. He is stepping down from the board. This is his debut blog post. You can read more at davecolburn.ca

7 thoughts on “Dave Colburn: How to save inner-city schools from suburban sprawl.”

  1. But what’s wrong with urban sprawl? No one ever has any reason why. We’re just growing.

  2. I wonder if one solution might be to consider the bricks and morter of schools as “social infrastructure” rather than exclusively places of formalized education.

    Schools could be far more integrated into their surrounding communities if they were used to meet a wider variety of community needs. Some of these other uses could be community centres, seniors’ drop-in centres, community phys-ed and recreation, counselling centres, social services offices, community kitchens, and the list goes on and on, limited only by our imagination.

    I realize that “some” schools are already doing “some” of these things, like renting out gyms or halls, but the cost of this provision shouldn’t come out of schools’ operating budgets.

    Education is supposed to be life-long, and a lot can be learned within the community, informally through interaction, if the resources are there to support it. It seems silly to have to lease seperate facilities for all these different functions when the “bricks and morter” is just sitting there, underutilized due to demographic shifts.

  3. Oh, and as to urban sprawl? What’s “wrong” with it is that it is inefficient use of land resources, and overly expensive to service relative to denser development, leading to higher taxes for all. Those are economic arguments against sprawl that any good conservative would have to acknowledge.

  4. As someone who has been making the link between urban sprawl and school closure since the late 1990s, I was excited to read this post because, hey, who wouldn’t want to save inner city schools from sprawl?

    Sadly, there’s nothing new to be found here.

    I quote Dave Colburn writing in the Edmonton Journal in October, 2010: “I am optimistic about the mayor’s enthusiasm to work with school boards. In the midst of the school-closure process this past school year, the board committed to collaboration. Last December, the board approved a motion to initiate tri-level discussions on school closures and school viability issues with the city and the province. Two meetings have taken place so far. The first, attended by the mayor, the minister of education, councillors, MLAs and trustees, revealed unanimous support for ongoing discussions. Terms of reference are being drafted and working meetings will begin following the election.”

    My understanding is that this unanimous support he mentioned in 2010 didn’t translate into anything even resembling action. Ditto anything following the release of Elevate 14 months ago.

    I guess I’m wondering why Dave Colburn is so optimistic now. What has he done to further this idea in the last three years? In the last year?

    Lastly, I want to note that the first candidate I came across in the 2010 election making this an election issue was Michael Janz. I interviewed him in April and the story (linking school closures to urban sprawl) can be found here:

    http://vueweekly.com/front/story/school_closures_cautionary_tales/

    Perhaps it’s reasonable to expect people to rewrite history as one gets ready to launch a campaign to run for city council but the suggestion that Dave Colburn is solely responsible for bringing this discussion to the fore (what he told me when I met him in March despite the presence of my 2001 campaign brochure bringing the issue to the fore)now, before the 2010 election, or ever, is absurd.

  5. Martin, you’re absolutely correct. Building schools to serve as community hubs is essential to dealing with the ebb and tide that is inherent with all communities. If we built schools that were adaptable to meet the needs of seniors groups, for e.g., we could re-purpose portions of those buildings as the need arose.

    When I think of a community that can serve young families, it’s clear that its characteristics are also the same as a community that can serve seniors and those with limited mobility.

    It’s virtually guaranteed that many of the children bursting out of those suburban schools on the outskirts will move into the core in 20 years and demand schools for their children. If we repurpose schools and build new schools so they are easy to repurpose instead of tearing them down (forcing us to repurchase land and rebuild them 30 years later) we’ll save countless millions and establish infrastructure that serves the community in the meantime.

    That’s the kind of creative thinking and concrete action that all levels of government can work towards. It’s not enough to muse about it. If we don’t have people in positions who are able to actually move that agenda forward forcefully, one can see how it might take over three years to set up a working group to study the obvious.

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