By Esther Callo and Dorothy Field
WE ARE ANTICIPATING the announcement of the public hearing on the Caledonia housing proposal on the site of Victoria High School. With Victoria’s ever-increasing housing crunch, supporting this proposal may seem the obvious choice, but the issue is more complex than that. Our community is also facing a financial crisis in our public education system, but few are aware of the severity of the problem. The Vic High land-use conflict shows just how deep and wide the problem has grown.
Vic High is the oldest high school west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco. In 2018, residents were faced with the choice of tearing down their 1914 school building in order to create a brand new campus (as Oak Bay High did), or doing a seismic upgrade to maintain the heritage facade and the most important heritage interior details. The community clearly favoured the seismic upgrade.
The Province provided $77.1 million in funding (including funding for an upgrade to SJ Willis), an exact match with the financial report prepared by consultants. The District has claimed that they are required to make an additional $2.6 million contribution due to the cost of preserving Vic High’s heritage. But to date, they have not substantiated the need for the additional funding, and documents (available at https://www.vichighsaee.ca/) do not support their claim.
To address this $2.6M, a relatively modest amount, the District has negotiated a 60-year lease of Vic High land for only $3.3 million after expenses. However, the proposed 158-unit housing complex causes a land-use conflict with Vic High’s long-held plans for a revitalized and expanded track and stadium. During consultations for Vic High’s future, we weren’t told that Vic High’s seismic upgrade could have such consequences.
If built, the Caledonia housing proposal will take up more than 2 acres of Vic High’s grounds.
Architectural illustration of one corner of the Caledonia
The District, the City of Victoria, and the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) negotiated a land swap to accommodate the large housing development with no real public consultation. At the first public information session hosted by the CRHC, many neighbours were troubled by the size of the proposal. When we asked about lowered heights or less density, we were told: “That’s the math.” That was our neighbourhood consultation.
Another consultation hosted by the District failed to disclose the land-use conflict with Vic High’s stadium plans. And the public was never given options about funding the $2.6M other than a lease of Vic High land.
Fernwood has long been known as a progressive neighbourhood, one that welcomes organizations that serve low-income people and those with substance use issues and other challenges. The idea of affordable housing fits into Fernwood’s ethic. But publicly funded education is also a part of our community’s ethic. The community has been split in a hurtful and unnecessary conflict between housing and education. What’s behind it?
School District 61’s financial crisis
As they say, follow the money. This spring, School District 61's Secretary-Treasurer Kim Morris gave a public presentation regarding Lansdowne Middle School land disposal (7 acres for $15 million). In it she revealed the District has $278M in deferred maintenance costs; this dwarves the recently announced $7 million in operating deficits.
Morris stated that the District receives only $4M annually from the Ministry to maintain facilities, noting, “[I]f we were to apply the $4M to the $278M deferred maintenance, it would take 70 years to ever pay for those and the compounding age and decline of the condition of the buildings occurs during that.”
In response to this colossal problem, the District has developed the School Rejuvenation Strategy that proposes to lease public school land for revenue.
But much like the annual injection of $4M, the strategy does little to offset the District’s $278M financial crisis.
And for Vic High, the land lease proposal quashes important, pre-existing infrastructure plans for Vic High’s 1,000 students.
How the financial crisis exacerbates inequity in School District 61
Vic High is often referred to as our “inner city school.” Its catchment includes James Bay, Fairfield, Rockland, Fernwood, Downtown, North Park, Hillside and Burnside neighbourhoods. It has a high percentage of First Nations, People of Colour, and new immigrants, many from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Approximately 75 percent of students at George Jay Elementary, one of Vic High’s feeder schools, are at risk and systemically marginalized, according to the George Jay PAC.
It’s no secret that marginalized communities face barriers to self-advocacy. This disadvantage makes Vic High especially vulnerable to the District’s strategy to lease land to offset deficits. Oak Bay High was not required to make such a sacrifice during its seismic upgrade, even though the school received District funding.
Vic High’s facilities have long been neglected. For decades, an upgrade of Vic High’s Memorial Stadium, completed in 1951 in honour of staff and students who died in World War II, has been in the works. Vic High’s yard track was to be upgraded to an 8-lane metric track so students could once again experience the benefits of track and field amenities at Vic High and take pride in their school’s athletic potential.
The red area approximates the area of land the housing project would need for a fire lane, but that a metric-size track would need as well.
Teachers know that sports participation builds body, mind, and spirit. They know that sports are often a boon for students who struggle academically. They know that physical success can raise students’ self-esteem and fuel better academic outcomes. Sports can lead to career opportunities and a lifetime sense of well-being. Without a full field and metric track, Vic High kids are at a disadvantage compared to kids at better endowed schools, schools that have sports academies, that host other schools for sports competitions, and draw students from other catchments. The construction of the Memorial Stadium Revitalization Project is needed to keep students physically and mentally fit and to support the development of pro-social skills.
Clearly, this is an equity issue. In a time when we are increasingly aware of how easy it is for less privileged kids, BIPOC and Indigenous kids, to be left behind, we must not allow Vic High’s inner-city students to be short-changed.
How did Vic High’s plans for a revitalized Memorial Stadium go awry?
The Vic High Alumni Association, starting a decade ago, spearheaded the campaign for a revitalized Memorial Stadium at the request of the District and City. The School Board gave unanimous support in 2012. In 2014, the City committed to matching up to $250,000 for the plans that included the metric track; and the public and Vic High alumni donated over $150,000. That’s a considerable amount of support, both in principle and in cash.
Unfortunately, while the Alumni continued its fund-raising activities, the School District, City, and CRHC were cutting land deals for the Caledonia housing proposal that undermined the original plans for Vic High’s upgraded stadium. This was months before the public was even consulted about Vic High’s seismic upgrade. (The timing suggests that the proposed lease was not motivated by the public’s choice to save Vic High’s heritage.)
During the seismic upgrade consultations in 2018, respondents chose school amenities, including athletics, as the “item they valued most,” above heritage protection. (See page 123 of this document)
In the 2019 announcement about Vic High’s seismic funding, former Minister of Education Rob Fleming committed to a renewal of Vic High’s sports infrastructure. And in Vic High’s 2020 Amenities Survey, teachers chose a new track and field as the school’s #1 priority.
Yet the Alumni Association was led to believe by the District that beyond the $500,000 they had raised (which was their Phase 1 green-light objective), no other funding would be available. And after Vic High’s Amenities Survey in 2020 (that confirmed widespread support for the upgraded track and stadium), the public was told that the track and turf field were no longer viable due to funding issues.
But funding had been committed for such projects. In 2017, the BC NDP committed $30 million to fund sports and arts facilities. North Delta Secondary just opened its own 8-lane metric track with the help of the program.
Funding is not the issue for Vic High’s revitalized Memorial Stadium plans. A land-use conflict with the housing proposal is the root of the problem.
In the end, only $700,000 was made available for a reduced turf field and 2-lane walking track.
Fernwood area discriminated against around green space
In 2017, the City of Victoria put forward its 25-year Parks and Open Spaces Master Plan. In comparison with other neighbourhoods, its maps show Fernwood with a few tiny and scattered green spaces. The largest is Stadacona Park, which isn’t convenient to central Fernwood. Fernwood is 8 out of 13 in terms of total hectares of parkland, 10 out of 13 in terms of hectares per 1000 residents.
The plan states that “public schools, which provide some of the same functions as neighbourhood and community parks, are under the greatest threat of change and potential loss of open space...As the urban density and population increase, demand for parks, open spaces and outdoor amenities such as gathering and social spaces also increase.”
Fernwood is one of seven neighbourhoods that have less than half of the City-wide recommended municipal parks’ land per capita.
The loss of land to the Caledonia project would put Fernwood even lower on the comparative list of neighbourhood open spaces. As well, Vic High’s catchment area has higher population density when compared to other catchments, and the families whose kids attend Vic High are less likely to have access to private green space of their own.
This inequity will only get worse if the Caledonia project is built. (A CRHC fact sheet misleadingly states: “The Caledonia development has enabled the City of Victoria to acquire additional parks and green space to be preserved for future generations, including the existing Fernwood Community Allotment Gardens, the Compost Education Centre and the lots adjoining Haegart Park.” But these already exist—the proposed land swap just shifts ownership from one entity to another.)
It’s also worth noting that new developments around Pandora and Cook will add to already rising school attendance as they are completed, bringing greater stress on both our schools and our green space.
The City seems oblivious to its own 25-year plan on protecting parks and open spaces, though it is only four years old. Should Caledonia be built, we will never see the metric track built, never get that land back. No one suggests that Oak Bay or Mt Doug give up their open space for affordable housing. It is, always and ever, the “inner city” schools and neighbourhoods that lose due to competing needs for space and poor planning.
Lack of trust: an independent inquiry needed
Before we can effectively address housing issues facing Victoria and the financial crisis facing the District, we must first address the moral crisis that has permeated all levels of government involved with Vic High.
The District has been recently criticized for systemic racism, resulting in Trustee Jordan Watters’ resignation as Chair. Vic High, a school with a high population of BIPOC and economically disadvantaged students, is vulnerable to this problem, one that spans the BC education system, according to a recent report.
The public can no longer trust that the District, City, CRHC, or Ministry of Education are at arm’s length regarding the proposed lease of Vic High land. The long-term consequences to the quality of education and well-being of Vic High’s 1,000 students, some of Victoria’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens, need to be our primary concern.
The public hearing regarding the proposed rezoning of Vic High land—expected this fall—must be put on hold until an independent inquiry into the land-use conflict involving High’s stadium revitalization project and the proposed lease of Vic High land can be conducted.
Our kids are our greatest assets. The 1,000 students of Vic High, current and future, deserve fairness and equitable treatment; they deserve a revitalized Memorial Stadium with a full field and 8-lane metric track—as well as a safe school.
The citizens' group Vic High Spaces and Ethical Engagement's website has a wealth of documentation: https://www.vichighsaee.ca , much of it obtained through Freedom of Information requests. See an earlier comment on the track issue here.
Born and raised in Victoria, Esther Callo is the parent of two Vic High graduates and served on the Vic High Parent Advisory Council for five years. She has a BA (Hons) from UVic and is a passionate advocate of public education. After working for several years as an Educational Assistant in SD61, Esther is currently completing the Secondary BEd post-degree professional program.
Dorothy Field is an artist working in print-based media and the writer of three volumes of poetry and and three non-fiction books. She's lived in Fernwood for the last 16 years and serves as a director of the Fernwood Community Association..