Parents with children in the Vancouver School District say closing schools to save money is a non-starter and could actually be harmful to the health of children and communities.
The B.C. government released an independent audit report on Tuesday that suggested the Vancouver School Board close or sell up to 19 schools in order to save $37 million per year.
The board held a public consultation for parents and the larger community on Wednesday evening ahead of its meeting with the province on Friday, with long-term recommendations likely coming in the fall.
Jennifer Stewart, who speaks for Families Against Cuts to Education, says the board and the province need to look at the impact of the school closures on a neighbourhood level.
"I cant say I'm surprised by it because it's clear the ministry has been gunning to close schools," she says. "But 19 schools is a huge number and we have to think of the families that go to those schools.
"Every school you see people using the playgrounds, using the playing fields. It's always the heart of the community and it worries me very much to hear these callous recommendations of closing schools without thinking of the human impact."
Farrah Shroff, a co-chair of the District Parent Advisory Council, says that idea is short-sighted given the fact that another one million people are expected to move into the Metro Vancouver area over the next 15 years.
"By the year 2030, we are going to need a huge number more people to fill our labour force," Shroff told CBC News on Wednesday.
"Whether or not our fertility rates are going to go up, whether or not we're going to have pro-natalist policies like they do in Quebec, we might be filling that with immigration ... and we're going to have to educate those kids."
Closing schools affects health, says mom
Shroff, whose 14- and 17-year-old boys are in the Vancouver school system, says the other issue with closing schools is transportation.
"When our children are not able to walk to school, that means that they're usually getting mom and dad to drive them.
"This is the era that we live in, where mom and dad have become chauffeurs. So they're really getting very, very, very little exercise."
Shroff says not only does this contribute to a growing problem of diabetes and obesity rates in young people, it also erodes community.
"They're also moving away from their feeder school and away from their neighbourhood and not developing that nice community that happens when a child or youth walks to school and gets to know their neighbours and develops a whole safety network."
10,000 empty seats
The province ordered the audit by Ernst & Young in March, after the Vancouver School Board projected at least a $15 million budget shortfall for the upcoming 2015-16 school year.
On Tuesday, B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender noted many Vancouver schools are currently operating under capacity — with more than 10,000 empty seats across the entire district.
He said closing under-utilized schools would mean the province can invest "in students and not in empty classrooms."
Shroff says she would rather see Fassbender sit down with VSB trustees and work collaboratively to fix the budget problem. She also says the province would be better off investing some of B.C.'s budget surplus in public education.