First of all, today is my 49th birthday. Let's hope a year from now I am doing something more exotic and entertaining than meeting with representatives from School District 67 explaining our subsidy proposal...
The meeting included myself (representing RDOS Area F), RDOS CAO Bill Newell, Board of Education Chair Linda Van Alphen, Superintendent Wendy Hyer, Secretary-Treasurer Bonnie Roller-Routley, and Dick Knorr, standing in for MLA Dan Ashton who is in Victoria. The purpose of the meeting was to address any questions or concerns SD67 might have about the proposed subsidy for West Bench Elementary School.
The meeting went about as well as expected: The group from SD67 does not like the proposal. It does not solve their underlying problem. But before we get too agitated about the outcome, it is worth a moment to ask (in the interest of balance): What is their underlying problem?
Demographics in General
First, there has been much talk lately about the government putting more money into education. By "the government" people mean the current provincial government and what they really mean is taxpayers. The translated argument is that taxpayers should put more money into education. Putting aside any pedagogical or even moral arguments for or against this assertion, let's consider the demographic (and thus democratic) prospects for increased spending on schools. My favorite starting point for this type of thing is the population pyramids of University of Toronto demographer David Foot. Pyramids show the distribution of the population by age. When you run Foot's animation you get a good sense for how much things have changed in the past 100 years.
Start by considering the population pyramid from 1951:
1951 is significant because, if you walk around Canadian elementary schools, you will notice that the brass plaque near the main office often shows a construction date in the early to mid-1950s. The growth at the base of the 1951 population pyramid tells us why. Move ahead a decade or so and we see the establishment of many Canadian universities (Simon Fraser, University of Lethbridge, Concordia, and so on). The point is, the baby boom was a massive demographic shock that required a massive governmental/taxpayer response. The investments in public infrastructure during this period were significant and impressive.
Fast-foward now to the population pyramid for 2011:
Really, what we see now is more a population sausage than pyramid. The inversion in the relative size of the school-aged and almost-senior-citizen cohorts has significant implications (as many, including David Foot, have long pointed out). The most important of these is a return to dependence by baby boomers on public infrastructure. In the same way that baby boomers needed elementary schools and universities when they were young, they will need healthcare and support facilities when they get old.
One might reasonably expect the attention of this large voting block to shift increasingly towards self-interest. Specifically, we might expect baby boom pensioners to be more sensitive to tax rates than their parents were at the start of the long post-war economic boom. And we may expect them to demand that public spending be prioritized towards the fatter end of the population sausage, not the skinnier end. Given this, and my time sitting in Interior Health planning meetings, I have a hard time believing that any democratically elected government is going to increase spending on schools. It is not that schools are not important, it is just that they are becoming less important relative to other spending priorities.
Demographics in Specific
The problem with Foot's population pyramids for our purposes is that they are expressed as a percentage of the population rather than absolute numbers. Thus, although the proportion of school-aged children has dropped it does not necessarily follow that schools should be closed. If the population were growing as a sufficient clip we could see the absolute number of school-aged children increase even while their share of the population pyramid shrank. But this is not what we are seeing.
BC Stats provides population forecasts by age cohort and school district. With a bit of Excel we can draw the following graph, which shows the absolute size of SD67's school-aged population by year:
Unfortunately, the data does not go back far enough to see the really big spikes--back when every school in Penticton seemed to have a portable classroom or two cluttering its back field. The peak we see around 1995 is the so-called baby boom echo. The echo's echo is projected to follow somewhere around 2040. Also, I should point out that this is census data in the 5-19 year-old cohorts, not actual school enrollment data. We should expect the same overall pattern in enrollment data if not exactly the same numbers.
Right now, in 2016, we are in a trough: roughly 80% of the district's most recent peak in school-aged population in 1996-97 (yes, check the date on the plaque by the office at KVR Middle School). Unfortunately, this smaller number of kids is distributed across a geographic area that slightly larger than it was in 1997 (e.g., Sendaro Canyon, Blackhawk, etc.)
Implications and Future Actions
Given all this, I have a hard time faulting the Board of Education for school closures. Indeed, given that their budget still has a big hole in it, West Bench Elementary may still achieve its goal of being on an equal footing with Naramata and Kaleden schools! (I don't want to spell this out lest a Naramata or Kaleden parent gets mad at me for jinxing their school).
Of course, from a land use planning perspective (which is one of the roles of the RDOS), a boarded-up school presents a significant barrier to growth generally and balanced demographic growth in particular. So we might want to start thinking about responses and alternatives:
- General growth: as noted previously, general growth is limited on the West Bench by unstable soils and the 1 Hectare subdivision requirement. The only way around these physical barriers is an engineered solution for waste and storm water (e.g., a sewer system). A sewer system is not out of the question but would likely require at least pockets of densification and development. We need to decide if we want this.
- Sales of homes to younger families: Turnover is inevitable, even without an elementary school. Large homes on large lots will eventually become unmanageable for baby boomers. Young families will eventually move in. But, as noted previously in my posting on the economic rationale for the RDOS subsidy, families will pay less for a neighborhood without a school. Sellers will, in effect, compensate buyers for the loss of the neighborhood amenity. Ouch.
- Wait it out: As noted above, the baby boom echo-echo is bound to result in some growth in the school-aged population. The current plan is to mothball West Bench Elementary, not demolish it. Thus some combination of general growth, neighborhood turnover, and demographic change may lead the Board of Education to one day reopen the school.
- Privatization: Despite the foregoing, the Board of Education may decide that a 155 pupil school on the West Bench is uneconomic, even if it operates at 100% capacity. Some communities in similar situations have invited private schools to step in to fill the void. SD67 can lease its buildings to private operators. This should be attractive to the local Board of Education given that it is still required to heat and maintain its mothballed schools.
To summarize: I get the strong sense from SD67 staff that they will recommend against the RDOS proposal. Assuming Bruce Johnson's motion to reverse the closure is seconded, it will come to a vote by the Board of Education in its May 9th meeting.
The issue of catchment design, raised here, will have to be addressed subsequently by SD67 in consultation with parents. It is certainly not an RDOS issue.