Public school board hamstrung when it comes to City Plan, says chair

· The Pulse
By Karen Unland

Past decisions by the city and current decisions by the province are making it difficult for the school system to live up to the City Plan's vision of 15-minute districts, suggests the chair of the Edmonton Public School Board.

The City Plan envisions a "community of communities" with "housing, recreation, schools and employment in all of our districts" that are accessible through all forms of transportation. But the school board has not been able to put schools in all the new neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the sprawl that previous councils have approved.

"We want to build schools where the kids are, we want to build schools so that kids can walk to school, so kids can ride their bike to school, so kids don't have to be on a bus for an hour both ways," Trisha Estabrooks told Episode 174 of Speaking Municipally. "When the city is building these neighbourhoods that are way on the outskirts of the city, that does cause problems."

Meanwhile, schools in mature neighbourhoods are often underutilized because there are fewer families with school-aged children living there. "And it's because their houses aren't affordable," Estabrooks told Taproot's civic affairs podcast. "The type of infill that we're building has to change, right? We want to invest in our mature communities. I want to invest in our mature community schools."

The province has made decisions that make it harder both to serve fast-growing communities at the edge of the city and to attract families to mature neighbourhoods closer to the centre of the city. The Alberta government has not funded a new school in Edmonton Public for two years in a row, even though the school division is growing by about 3,000 students per year.

"That means that kids are on the bus longer. That means that our class sizes are getting bigger," Estabrooks said, adding that students in the catchment area of Lillian Osborne High School have to win a lottery to go to their neighbourhood school.

The province also refused to fund a replacement school for Delton School, even though it has been at or near the top of the school board's capital funding request for years. Delton was built in 1946, and it doesn't have proper wheelchair access, among other things. "Delton's a great little community school, but it needs a lot of work," said Estabrooks, whose Ward D includes Delton. "It deserved to be on that capital plan list. Unfortunately, the ministry felt that that request shouldn't be funded."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's department explained the decision by noting Delton's enrolment is only 69%. "If EPSB was truly concerned about building for growth, they needed to prioritize new schools in growing areas at the top of their amalgamated list," spokesperson Katherine Stavropoulos told Global News.

And that is indeed what the school board has done, Estabrooks said, noting that its capital wish list is now topped by a request for a new school in Glenridding Heights, a neighbourhood south of Ellerslie Road in UCP minister Kaycee Madu's riding of Edmonton South West.

A portrait of Trisha Estabrooks, smiling in front of a brick wall

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, spoke to Speaking Municipally about the intersection of schools and Edmonton's City Plan, among other issues.

Estabrooks was also disappointed by the province's decision to spend $72 million on expanding charter schools, which select their students, unlike widely accessible public schools. "I think we're going in the wrong direction on this one," she said.

The 212 schools in the Edmonton public district do act as community hubs, which creates the opportunity for "so many cool intersections with that City Plan," Estabrooks said. She cited the example of Dr. Anne Anderson High School, a high school in Heritage Valley that will be fully open in 2022-23. It includes a community centre that was built in partnership with the city and the province.

Schools could have served the broader community if they housed COVID-19 vaccination clinics, but that idea didn't get much traction, and it doesn't seem likely under a UCP government, Estabrooks said. She noted the frustrating but ultimately successful fight to get provincial permission to use $6 million from the board's surplus to buy HEPA air filters to limit the spread of the virus.

"I'm reminded that pandemics are political," she said. "It's been tough to navigate with this provincial government."

At one point, COVID-19 hit the school system so hard that "we literally did not have the staff to keep our schools open," she said. "Things have calmed down, but I don't think anyone thinks that we're out of the woods yet."

Hear more about these issues, as well as active transportation to and from school, a couple of board governance matters, what happened to sharing school buses with the Catholic district, and an invitation to fill out this year's division survey, on the April 15 edition of the podcast.