UPDATED JANUARY 26th, 2021: I made the following Notice of Motion at today's EPSB meeting (for debate at the February 9th, 2021 meeting):
As per section 13 and 14 of the joint use agreement with the City of Edmonton, EPSB trigger a renegotiation in order to clearly articulate apropriate uses of surplus school sites that help keep neighbourhood schools open and strengthen the educational outcomes of the Public, Catholic, and Francophone districts.
Further that the Board request the City refrain from any further sale of public land to private schools until the renegotiation is complete.
I’ve been reflecting on the last few months at city hall, and I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts related to the future of multi-institutional collaboration…
We just went through a $5 Billion school building boom, and that was just counting our schools.
In the good times, everyone wants their own building, and many have fallen hostage to a kind of “edifice complex”— Their own school, library, faith centre, seniors centre, corner store, community hall.
Now that the economic weather is getting colder, (provincial austerity, a slow pandemic recovery, a climate crisis and numerous economic hardships) how can we better collaborate on municipal land and infrastructure?
How do we continue to have "nice things" in Edmonton, who pays for them, who maintains them, and who gets to access them?
We could, as Don Iveson suggested at the Executive Committee on January 18th, look at public land through a shared vision of affordable housing, parks, green space, and public assets. How can we think about collaborative advocacy for amendments to provincial legislation that can enable better use of the tax dollar?
Two recent debates are raising the question of how different orders of government and organizations work together— or don’t.
I welcome your feedback and advice, so please help me think this through if you believe that I'm missing an opportunity. ([email protected])
Both of these conversations tie into our Joint Use Agreement, signed between all three school boards and city hall. (Read more)
The first debate: what is the future of local recreation?
1) Scona Pool
The first is the continued funding of Scona Pool (a win for the community). Before being elected trustee, I’d written about my advocacy for Scona Pool, swam there on my lunch breaks at the EFCL, and have continued to support conversations towards the future of local recreation in Edmonton. Scona Pool is a treasured community asset that for, at least, the third time recommended for closure and Council sensibly voted to continue its support of the facility. Recreation should not be a tool for profit, but rather a service and an investment in the health and wellness of all members of the community. While it is co-located against one of Edmonton’s finest high schools, the historic agreements are clear that the pool is a city asset and responsibility.
1) A: Rethinking Resourcing Rollie Miles
As an advocate for mid-size recreation opportunities in the core (such as the Rollie Miles Recreation Centre), I agree with leaders and advocates that we need to think creatively about how we can create replacement infrastructure. What opportunities are there for a neighbourhood improvement levy (like we do with sidewalks, alleyways or streetlights), a CRL (Community Revitalization Levy), preferred access passes, or more? What opportunities are there to work with developers to look at co-location of housing, commercial or social service infrastructure above a pool and recreation centre?
As our Southside matures, neighbourhoods turnover and densify; having a local recreation centre could help improve livability for all ages, wages, and stages of life. To what extent, if provided preferential rates or rental agreements, could school boards be committed partners in the process? What is the potential for other “institutional partners” to get in at the ground floor?
Like public transit, swimming pools are never profitable in and of themselves, nor should that be their objective. We are investing in community wellness, sport, health, and teaching our children an important survival skill. They are a community asset and a civic service. Like playgrounds or a firework display on Canada Day, they are part of the excitement of living in a beautiful city like Edmonton. Improved and increased amenities attract creative class workers and diversified industry sectors to Edmonton, improve quality of life and access to amenities keeps workers in the city. I do not think large massive, suburban mega-multiplexes will accomplish this as affordably or effectively.
2) Surplus School Sites:
The second debate with regard to the sale of surplus school sites to private schools.
School Boards have a responsibility, in my mind, to not hold onto land when it is no longer needed. We want to be good partners, good neighbours, and be part of helping build our city for future generations. We see great alignment with the vision of the city plan that could help reduce future school closures. We believe surplus sites could contribute to revitalizing existing public schools by welcoming more families and adding recreation amenities: trees, green spaces or dozens of other purposes that could help all of us build strong schools and strong communities.
While I support the right of private schools to exist (sans public funding, of course), they should not be supported by a municipality with the provision of a prime piece of public land (close to parks, playgrounds, parking lots and access roads).
As we warned city council in 2016, this contributes to the fracturing public education, future school closures, and divided communities (please listen to Matt Damon narrate Backpack full of Cash and join SOS Alberta about how many charter and private schools are really not about education but land development). Once you let go of neighbourhood land, you never get it back, especially to a private business putting profits ahead of programming.
The worst part about these situations are the missed opportunities to find common purpose with the City Plan— as the mayor has said, housing should be our priority. Even a non-devlopmental purpose such as an urban forest or green space to assist with cleaning our air and meeting climate objectives. Any of these creative solutions are better than private school providers that accept and reject students at their whim and end the conversation about the use of space.
Rethinking the Joint Use Agreement
The common link between both of surplus school sites and Scona Pool/Rollie Miles is a chance to rethink our Joint Use Agreement and work together to think creatively about how our school boards and City Hall can collaborate.
While it could make things more complicated, now may be the time to bring other institutions (Alberta Health Services or Covenant Health) into the Joint Use Agreement, especially as we are in the midst of a global pandemic and need to think creatively about public health now and in the future.
Since I first ran for Trustee in 2010 under the banner of “Strong Schools, Strong Communities”, I have been an advocate for community schools, schools as community hubs, and co-locations of services (such as childcare) that can benefit all. I was inspired by the 2010 sit down I had with Brian Staples, commonly known as the father of the Community Schools model in Edmonton, for instance beautiful, multi-functional school spaces like Mckee. I wish I could bang out a few squats and have a community league lifting membership for the Allendale School weight room.
But structural provincial cutbacks and jurisdictional funding challenges have thrown up obstacles to this vision.
However, we have had wins and there are precedents. I voted for the addition of childcare space at Mill Creek School (Ritchie)— despite some saying this was outside of our mandate. We supported the Lillian Osbourne Theatre Project, a community Centre attached to a thriving hospital. My son had his immunizations at the Twin Brooks Public Health Centre, a Health Centre nested in the second floor of George P. Nicholson School and we have seen Centre High secure a prime space downtown in a lease with MacEwan University. I have supported budget allocations in our capital, an operating budget that support partners in providing after school education, and worked with leaders like REACH Edmonton in trying to provide programming for our young people during the critical after school hours.
The Replacement School Model
One way we have been able to successfully change the narrative on school closures has been by moving from a closure model to a more flexible, replacement school model: seeing one for ones, two for ones, and three for ones depending on the context; actually seeing neighbourhoods competing to receive the replacement school.
Part of the conversation around Elevate and the Community School Task Force in 2011 was an attempt towards this greater alignment. Part of the challenge will be for the schools that are left behind: how can we derive, as a community, maximal benefit from the school and land assets?
The great challenge in housing and the city plan, is not infill, but addressing the need for affordable, family-friendly housing. If these sites could help add hundreds of new students to surrounding public schools, that would score a straight "A" against every metric in the new city plan.
The future is unwritten, but we need elected officials at all levels who understand the integral investment that public education is to our city, the future of our economic recovery and competitiveness, and a willingness to help breakdown silos and work together.
If the provincial and federal government stopped the downloading of costs and the ideological austerity lingering since the Klein years, our watering hole would stop shrinking and we could stop looking at one another as food.