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'State of crisis': Daycare centres forced out of New West schools

Trustees say the school district is left with no choice but to relocate two child-care centres.
Fraser River Middle School campus
The Fraser River Middle School site, seen here (with portable in the foreground) from the Queens Avenue side, is planned to house a future elementary school by 2027. But, in the meantime, an on-site child-care centre has to move to make space for classrooms.

Daycare centres currently operating at two New Westminster schools are on the move to a new home — and unless a new solution comes to light by December, that home won’t be in the downtown core.

New Westminster school trustees voted Nov. 8 to have the district give notice to the Purpose Society, which runs child-care centres at École Qayqayt Elementary School and Fraser River Middle School. The centres, which offer infant-toddler care for 72 children in total, must be relocated by March 2024.

The district needs the spaces to create more classrooms at both schools.

The trustees’ vote, which took place at an operations committee meeting, will be up for final approval at the full school board meeting Nov. 22.

The move comes as School District 40 grapples with a severe shortage of space in its schools, particularly in the fast-growing central core of the city.

“We are in a state of crisis,” secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said.

SD40 needs new schools to cope with rapid rise in enrolment

District-wide, SD40 schools are operating at 110 per cent capacity. Enrolment for the 2022/23 school year grew by more than five per cent over the previous year, or 347 full-time-equivalent students — considerably higher than the anticipated growth of 220 FTE.

The only solution, Ketcham said, is to build new schools — but, for that, the district needs capital funding from the B.C. Ministry of Education. Though it’s been making capital planning requests to that effect for years, Ketcham said, it wasn’t until March of this year that the ministry acknowledged the district’s capacity pressures and allowed it to move forward with a business case for a new elementary school.

The district is planning a new, 600-student elementary school for the current Fraser River Middle School site, but funding for that school has not yet been approved and it’s not expected to open until 2027.

In the meantime, SD40 is making some short-term moves to increase capacity, including converting the daycare space in question into six classrooms: two at Qayqayt and four at FRMS. The district wants those classrooms open by September 2024 to add an estimated 150 student seats.

Those seats are desperately needed as enrolment continues to grow rapidly at both schools. Qayqayt, with an operating capacity of 501, has a projected enrolment of 682 by 2024. Fraser River Middle School, meanwhile, has an operating capacity of 500 and a projected enrolment of 669 by 2024.

The New Westminster school district has secured funding from the B.C. Ministry of Education to move the two child-care centres: from Qayqayt to F.W. Howay Elementary School in Massey-Victory Heights, and from FRMS to Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary School in the West End.

But that idea has parents worried.

Qayqayt parents who spoke against the move at an October school board meeting pointed out those two neighbourhoods are considerably less central and told trustees that moving child care out of the downtown core would make access difficult — and, in some cases, impossible — for families.

Tight timeline could make downtown site tricky

But SD40 says it’s been left with little choice.

Ketcham said the school district has no other sites within the downtown area, and finding another, non-district-owned site could be difficult on multiple fronts.

“We, too, are a not-for-profit entity,” she said. “We do not have the resources or the funding to look for alternate downtown locations.”

District staff will continue to work with Purpose Society to try to find an alternate, central location for the child-care centres, while working in parallel on its default plan to move the two centres to the Howay and Tweedsmuir sites. 

But Ketcham sounded a cautionary note about the likelihood of success.

For one, the money available to the school district to move the programs to its other school sites — $2.8 million in new spaces child-care funding, and $1.5 million in capital funding to convert the existing child-care spaces to classrooms — is only available to the school district for district-owned sites; it can’t transfer that money to the Purpose Society for use elsewhere.

There’s also the complication that Purpose currently leases the child-care spaces from the school district at considerably less than market rates — an average of 64 per cent less, according to Ketcham. The possibility that the not-for-profit society can find another downtown premises at similar rates is slim.

Adding to the challenge is the speed with which the school district needs to move to have the new classrooms ready for the fall of 2024. Purpose Society needs to be out by March 2024 so the district has enough time to complete the necessary renovations on the spaces — and, even more urgently, the district needs to start work on the Howay and Tweedsmuir locations by January 2023 at the latest. That means any new plan must be in place by this December.

While the district can control the timeline and ensure the new child-care spaces are ready at Howay and Tweedsmuir by then, Ketcham said, it wouldn’t have the same control over any other outside arrangement.

“The timing may not align with our needs, and the transition may not be as seamless as we would prefer,” she said. “The timeline in which we can put forward a viable solution is closing in on us.”

She acknowledged the hardship the situation places on daycare families but pointed out the school district needs to make its K-12 catchment schools the top priority.

New Westminster trustees reluctantly support child-care move

Trustees voiced reluctant support for the plan.

Trustee Dee Beattie said she understands parents’ frustration, especially given the priority the district has put on increasing daycare spaces in schools, but said she would “regrettably” support the move.

Trustee Maya Russell said that, in the end, the decision was clear. She said she’d had some “wishful thinking” that there would be another option on the table but added it’s clear that deferring a decision wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do.

“I remain committed to continuing to grow child care and find ways that this can work, but not at the expense of our mandate,” she said.

Marc Andres, in his first operations committee meeting as a new trustee, said he hadn’t known just how stark the numbers were.

“As someone with a two-year-old who is in this very zone, I really feel for the families who are speaking about this issue,” he said, but added the district has no real alternative. “Seeing our growth and recognizing that we have the responsibility to house our students coming in, this is the problem that we face right now.”

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca

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