Roughly two years after first being saved, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), citing poor enrolment numbers, voted to close Rosscarrock School.
It was another blow to Calgary’s established communities, where neighbourhood schools seem to be increasingly on the endangered list.
According to a recent CBC story, two Calgary Catholic schools in established neighbourhoods are also on the chopping block.
In 2019, the Rosscarrock residents rallied to keep the school. It was rescued in a 4-3 vote.
Efforts after that vote to boost lagging enrolment weren’t successful. They tried to add an early development centre to attract kindergarten-aged kids. It was pulled in 2020 after a reorganization. The school’s budget was boosted, according to the CBE, to “enhance student learning opportunities.”
Work was done to raise awareness and interest in the school.
It wasn’t enough.
Utilization rate, the measure of how much of a school is occupied for use, was 18 per cent. In September 2020, 72 students were enrolled. Enrolment actually declined over the two years. There were only three teachers and one principal – who also taught part time.
There weren’t enough parents to build a school council. Partner programs pulled out because there just weren’t enough kids.
This time, the vote to close Rosscarrock School was unanimous.
“We all love our neighborhood public schools, which is why the prospect of seeing one close can be very difficult,” said CBE Trustee Chair Marilyn Dennis in the Jan. 26, 2021 meeting where trustees voted to close the school.
Closing the school saves the CBE as much as $450,000 per year.
The problem may not only be an enrolment and funding issue, but one of communication – a partnership – between the City of Calgary and its schools boards.
Building neighbourhoods and attracting families to established areas
The City of Calgary has undertaken a massive effort in recent years to develop the Guidebook for Great Communities.
According to the City of Calgary’s website, the Guidebook “makes for a more inclusive and consistent way to plan a community’s growth.”
While it will apply to all communities, right now it’s being applied in Calgary’s established areas.
The Guidebook was used to inform the North Hill Communities Local Area Plan and is being used for the Local Area Plans for Westbrook (includes Rosscarrock) and Heritage.
“When we think about what our great communities are, we focus on that people-centered approach to what are those important things that citizens look for within their communities,” said Robyn Jamieson, senior planner with the Guidebook for Great Communities team.
“Schools are a really key component of that.”
In the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2019 Mortgage Consumer Survey, proximity to schools and daycare ranked as the fifth most important ‘need’ when purchasing a home. Roughly 58 per cent characterized it as a ‘need.’
Ahead of it were such indicators as cost, number of rooms and number of bathrooms. Also ahead was proximity to public transit. (The survey didn’t provide a value for the proximity that was acceptable to buyers, but the CBE walk zone limit today is 2.4 kilometres from a school.)
The word school(s) is mentioned 11 times in the 131 pages of text of the Guidebook. None of those are in a meaningful way except to acknowledge they have a role great communities.
Jamieson acknowledged they didn’t directly engage with Calgary school boards on the Guidebook for Great Communities. School boards were, however, a stakeholder in the overarching Municipal Development Plan (MDP).
That plan (MDP) calls for 50/50 growth in both inner city and the suburbs by 2069. That’s more than half a million new people in the inner city.
Rosscarrock a ‘great community’
Rosscarrock resident Aurelie Maerten said there’s a perception that residents in the community are an aging population. She doesn’t think that’s the case.
“I see a lot of young families in infills,” she said.
“When we went out on Halloween, it was packed.”
Census data from the City of Calgary shows that since 2015, the population of Rosscarrock has grown by more than five per cent (from 3,447 to 3,625).
In the CBE’s Jan. 26 meeting, facilities Supt. Dany Breton acknowledged a letter from Calgary’s City Manager David Duckworth showing population increases in the area.
Breton said it needed to be taken in context. Half of the roughly 45, 0-4-aged students in the area would go to Catholic schools. Another portion to specialized programs in the city. Even if they managed to corral all the students, it would have left the Rosscarrock School still with less than 100 students. A more realistic number from that 45 would be nine new students.
“So, at the end of the day, with that few students, even if all nine students entered Rosscarrock, we would still require merging of grades and the school will continue to remain underutilized,” he told trustees.
Maerten said she understands the decision the CBE had to make. The situation is a tricky one, she said.
“It really is how parents make decisions about schools and I think that right now, decision making about schools is a lot more complicated than just looking at which school is in the neighborhood,” she said.
Students attending Rosscarrock will go to either Glendale School or Wildwood School. Both are in adjacent communities but require crossing major roads at 17 Avenue SE or Bow Trail.
School funding formula change
At the CBE meeting, Supt. Breton detailed how provincial cash is now doled out for school operations and maintenance based on a school’s enrolment and utilization.
The province calculates the operations and maintenance grant by adding together enrolment allocation and utilization of space. To receive the full amount, a school needs to maintain an 85 per cent or higher utilization rate.
Two years ago, the utilization rate was 40 per cent at Rosscarrock. Today, it sits at 18 per cent.
That calculation resulted in a loss of $100,000 in operations cash from the province.
Maertens believes that’s a big reason the CBE is closing schools like Rosscarrock.
“The way that they (CBE) gave their data is that the number of school-aged kids in elementary school is decreasing, all over the city,” she said.
“And with that, that schools have to close for them to be able to receive adequate funding and have schools at 85 per cent capacity.”
It’s worth noting that between 2017 and 2018, the utilization at Wildwood dropped from 75 per cent to 63 per cent. Glendale dropped two per cent from 77 to 75.
The students gained from Rosscarrock will likely help keep those schools closer to the 85 per cent utilization – and in line to receive full provincial funding.
The big disconnect
Area city councillor Evan Woolley recognizes the troubling funding situation the CBE is in.
But he believes the response to close Rosscarrock is a reactive one. In Calgary’s established communities, we need to start thinking proactively if we’re to attract and maintain families – and therefore schools, he said.
“Most neighbourhoods change, and they go through generational shifts,” Woolley said.
Neighbourhoods like Rosscarrock, established in 1954, are going through one of those generational shifts. Sure, there weren’t a surplus of kids in recent years, but that’s starting to change, he said.
It’s the kind of area tailor-made for the Guidebook for Great Communities.
Woolley said, however, school boards and the city aren’t working together on this issue. And by not looking ahead, they may fall further behind.
“We’re building 50 new schools in our far-flung suburbs, because that’s where people are, but it’s super reactive. It’s not proactive,” he said.
“It ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re trying to get new people living in older, inner city communities. If a school closes, what does that do? People start moving to suburban communities where there’s a new and better school.
“It really does not support what we’re trying to do as part of the Guidebook.”
We asked the CBE to speak directly to their involvement in the Guidebook. They initially said to watch the Jan. 26 live meeting for more information. We followed up because the Guidebook wasn’t addressed, though there was a mention of work (or lack thereof) to improve density in communities.
“There hasn’t been any rapid or long-term solutions to achieve either higher population numbers in neighborhoods like Rosscarrock, nor the density and population numbers, like we are seeing in newer communities,” said Ward 12 and 14 CBE trustee, Mike Bradshaw.
“This is a density problem that needed a solution 20 years ago. And we are not in a position of the board to carry this any further.”
We followed up to ask the CBE to address the Guidebook and we were told they would ask administration about it.
We haven’t received a response.
Glimmer of hope?
As previously mentioned, the Guidebook for Great Communities was used in the development of the North Hill Local Area Plan.
The plan addresses, in more detail, how it will shape the future of the area based on the Guidebook principles, with input from today’s residents.
In that draft document, the preservation of the Tuxedo Park School is specifically mentioned. It also mentions improvements to the school green area and the playground. But, that school was closed in 2014 and the preservation is a heritage one.
This means today’s residents are considering what might be needed today to build a better community. How does it reflect the needs of tomorrow’s residents?
Again, however, there are only eight mentions of schools in the North Hill plan. Two were related to Tuxedo Park school. None were core to the document.
According to online documents, there were 32 community association, resident, business, and development members of the working group for the North Hill Local Area Plan. No one from the CBE or the Calgary Catholic School Board were on the working group.
Coun. Woolley said there is the Joint Use Coordinating Committee, which is supposed to handle these types of cross-jurisdictional issues. He said that group hasn’t been very effective over the years.
“It’s super bureaucratic and inefficient,” Woolley said.
Future of the Rosscarrock site
Rosscarrock School will be officially closed at the end of this school year.
In the Jan. 26 meeting, Ward 8 & 9 trustee Richard Hehr went back to the drop in utilization between 2019 and today.
“I have to be honest, I’m surprised that instead of going up, it went down,” he said.
Maerten said she’s not surprised. After the close call in 2019, the writing was on the wall. Few parents would plan to enrol their child in a school that seemed destined to be shut down.
“I definitely think if you have a chance that a school is going to close, you want continuity, right?” Maerten said.
“So, I think that does impact parents and their choices about which school they send their kids to.”
The mechanism in place when a school closes is the site is returned to the City of Calgary for $1. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
Maerten said what comes next at that site will likely impact the neighbourhood’s desirability for future residents. If it’s repurposed as a community gathering place in the spirit of the Rosscarrock School, it could have a net positive effect.
She said area kids use the hills for sledding. The playground is busy in the summer.
“I think if that space can be kept as something that can be used for the community, that’s a green space, that’s still a place where people can come together and gather, I think there’s still value in that,” she said.
“If it becomes some kind of multi-housing complex, or private space, and we lose that, then, I think that would make the community definitely less attractive.”
‘The centre of a community’
Coun. Woolley makes no bones about it. He thinks the Rosscarrock School decision lacked vision.
“As it relates to the Guidebook, obviously schools are a massive, massive component of city building,” Woolley said.
“The challenge is, it’s not our jurisdiction. We can’t force this.”
Getting the City and the school boards together is an issue that’s been going on a generation, he said. Woolley said former mayor Dave Bronconnier tried to broach the issue, to create a different partnership.
“Even over the years, the Calgary Board of Education has not been too engaged or, I think, all that interested in engaging on these decisions,” he said.
“This (Rosscarrock) is just that reactive, short-term financial gain, long-term neighbourhood pain for these decisions the Calgary board is making.”
The spillover effect of this siloed approach impacts both parties – the pressure to entice people into the inner city to live, and for the CBE to help limit rising costs in transportation and infrastructure. It’s a vicious circle.
Schools can have a new life, Woolley said. When he was first elected seven years ago, Altadore School was endangered. Now it’s full. Alexander Ferguson – the same thing, he said.
The solution is in getting these two institutions on the same side.
“We really don’t have a close enough or good enough working relationships with the boards of the boards of education on how these decisions are made,” Woolley said.
“And so, the only power we had in this, is we’ve got a letter that we sent.”