Christy Clark made promises to seismically upgrade schools in her last campaign — she didn’t keep those promises and she’s taking credit for others

In 2005, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell promised to upgrade all of B.C.’s seismically high-risk public schools by 2020. The Christy Clark government has pushed that deadline to 2025 or even 2030, and has made more promises than progress.

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The concern was reasonable but the reality was so many of B.C. schools are in terrible condition and so poorly built that it’s cheaper to tear them down and replace them with new buildings. Especially if you factored in long-term operating costs and savings from building more modern, energy efficient buildings.

That was the case for General Gordon, although there was far from unanimous agreement about whether the old school should have been retrofitted or torn down and replaced.

The General Gordon rebuild story – good news at last

By all accounts I’ve heard so far the new General Gordon building is getting rave reviews from students, parents and school staff. I’m happy and relieved about that because I, along with many, many others, worked for years to get that school built.

The project was nearly ready to go ahead in 2007 when parents and local residents balked at the proposed replacement school that was going to be much smaller than the original, seismically high-risk school.

Parents from Kitsilano’s General Gordon School and West Point Grey’s Queen Mary school took their concerns straight to their MLA Gordon Campbell, who was also the B.C. Premier at the time. 

Campbell heard them out and responded with a September 2008 announcement at Queen Mary Elementary of a new pilot program for “Neighbourhood Centres of Learning” that would result in increased space allocations for rebuilt or upgraded schools.

It sounded like a pretty great idea. Here’s what former Vancouver Sun education reporter Janet Steffenhagen recalled about it in a blog post:

Premier Gordon Campbell put the brakes on school closures Wednesday, saying his government wants to give schools new life as neighbourhood hubs that deliver education and services year-round to all ages.

The plan will begin with a $30-million pilot project at three Vancouver schools — Queen Mary, General Gordon and Strathcona — and two rural schools yet to be identified. The lessons learned will be spread across the province to rejuvenate all public schools, especially those hurt by declining enrolments, he said at a news conference.

The announcement marks a significant policy shift for a government that has long urged boards of education to cut costs by getting rid of surplus space. Boards will no longer be able to dispose of properties without explicit government approval.

“Our schools are a critical component of our communities," Campbell said, adding that the Neighbourhoods of Learning project will allow people to access educational and community services under one roof.

For many communities, the announcement comes too late. More than 170 public schools have closed since the Liberals were elected in 2001 and amended the funding formula to encourage boards to dispose of excess space.

“There are things that have happened that we can’t undo,” the premier said when asked about those closures. “The past . . . is prologue; the future is what we decide it’s going to be. This is a way that we can build an even brighter future for our schools, for our neighbourhoods and for our students.” – Janet Steffenhagen, Vancouver Sun, February 2012. 

Well that was then and this is now. And eight years later General Gordon is done and Queen Mary and Strathcona are almost there. And don’t get me started about the current premier and school closures — that’s another column, or several, for another day.

Campbell also gave the Vancouver School Board (VSB) $750,000 to undertake “visioning” processes for General Gordon, Queen Mary and Strathcona schools. I participated in those meetings and workshops as a former Queen Mary parent and then as Chair of the Vancouver School Board and trustee liaison to General Gordon.

The General Gordon discussions were thoughtful and spirited and the meetings were many. And by many I mean many many – lots and lots of meetings and forums over months and months.

Several participants — especially those from the West Kitsilano Residents’ Association — made strong and passionate cases to retain the old school for its heritage value by seismically upgrading the existing building.

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