The B.C. government released an audit report of the Vancouver School Board on Tuesday that suggests up to 19 schools could be looked at for possible closure or sale in an effort to save millions of dollars a year.
The 225-page review by Ernst & Young found the board could find a one-time saving of up to $750 million in asset sales, and total annual savings of $72 million though increased revenues and reduced costs.
The latter includes $37 million in savings that could be found by addressing nearly 10,400 surplus seats in Vancouver schools.
"There are significant opportunities for the Vancouver School District, and other districts in the province I might add, to look at ways to ensure that every dollar that can be invested in students and not in empty classrooms is the priority," said B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender, commenting on the report.
The report does not identify which 19 schools should be assessed for closure. However, it does point out that enrolment has not improved at Queen Alexandra or Sir William MacDonald.
It also says Sir Guy Carleton "may no longer be a suitable candidate" for closure. The VSB announced it was considering closing the 119-year-old school back in 2010, sparking intense community protest.
Fassbender already announced in March he was appointing an independent special adviser to help the VSB balance its budget, after the board projected a budget shortfall of at least $15 million for the upcoming school year.
On Tuesday, he said every dollar needs to be invested in students, and the school board should be prepared to consider school closures and make a final decision.
But he would not speculate on which schools might be slated for closure, leaving that decision up to the VSB.
"There are areas in the City of Vancouver, for example, the east side that is over capacity while the west is growing. So they have to look at that in terms of their fiscal planning and their long-term strategic plan," said Fassbender.
The report backed that view up, with the following maps:
'It's a bit misleading,' says VSB trustee
Meanwhile, VSB trustee Patti Bacchus called the report "alarming" and said the board does not support closing schools as a solution to its budget problems.
"We know this is a growing city. We will be requiring school space in the future," she told CBC News.
"Selling off school lands is not something that the Vision [Vancouver] trustees would be supporting, and we know that the communities would be incredibly concerned about a change like that," .
Bacchus said the problem isn't empty seats, but a lack of funding from the province.
"What we need to see is a government that's committed to public education, committed to investing in public education, and committed to supporting school boards and ensuring that every neighbourhood has a vibrant, well-funded school."
Bacchus also said the VSB has addressed the seat issue by bringing in all-day kindergarten and early learning programs, as well as increasing its enrolment of tuition-paying international students, among other things.
"The government will say there's 10,000 empty seats, but you won't find 10,000 empty seats if you go out there.
"You'll find art rooms, you'll find computers, you'll find sensory rooms for special education students, you'll find adult-ed programs going on, you'll find childcare programs going on. So it's a bit misleading and it's not that simple."
The report makes a total of 59 recommendations, a dozen of which are directed at the Ministry of Education. Fassbender says he will be acting on all 12.
He also says the VSB has until June 30 to review the report and submit its final budget for the 2015-16 school year, like every other district in the province.
Bacchus says the VSB will be holding a public meeting on Wednesday to discuss the report's findings. From there, the board will determine if there is anything that can be incorporated into the upcoming budget.
However, she said "there's really nothing new" in the report that the school board wasn't already aware of, and it's a bit late in the school year to make changes.
VSB chairperson and NPA Vancouver member Christopher Richardson has not ruled out closures in the future, but he says there has to be "a process of collaboration and consultation with the communities" first.