Yard Duty

May 1, 2011

It's 9:15 on a Monday morning at Lord Selkirk Elementary, and the gym is packed. Principal Richard Zerbe emerges from a doorway in a baggy purple frock. Amid the hoots is a hint of disappointment: the students had voted for pink. Fortunately, former vice-principal Carmen Batista has come to further energize the room with a Holt Renfrew bag full of (Value Village) bangles and boas. "We must accessorize," she declares with the stylishly sadistic verve of What Not to Wear's Stacy London. Students are invited to do what they can with a man for whom the term "relaxed fit" might have been coined. Soon enough, Principal Zerbe is vamping around the room to Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You."

This is what schools do today to replace a rotting playground. The Vancouver School Board announced last summer that 24 schools, most on the East Side, had just two years to replace decaying equipment. The VSB used to cover installation costs ($10,000 to $20,000) and occasionally the provincial government provided grants from gambling revenue (up to $20,000). But in the last few years all that funding has disappeared: in Vancouver, there is no longer dedicated funding from any level of government for playground replacement.

Principal Zerbe agreed to the gym show after families met a $9,000 fundraising target. (For $12,000 he promised to shave his legs.) Two years of conventional fundraising have yielded a total of $40,000, but the school wants $150,000 in all for new playground equipment and another $50,000 for a natural play area with a cob house and willow tunnel, and a landscaped space where older kids can hang out.

In January the school won $100,000 in Aviva Insurance's annual competition for community projects. It was a long-shot victory in a national contest that pitted Lord Selkirk, a designated inner-city school that serves more than 600 kids on East 22nd Avenue at Commercial Drive, against 2,000 other entrants, including neighbouring Laura Secord Elementary. Parent-advisory committee member Tracey Brown was a bit heartsick when she learned Secord was a rival. To avoid direct competition, Selkirk reduced its original goal of winning $200,000 from Aviva and switched categories. Perhaps that made the difference; it was the only Western Canadian project among the 11 winners, five of which were school playgrounds.

"We thought long and hard about how we would differentiate ourselves," Brown recalls. Selkirk garnered 30,000 of two million votes cast online to become one of 30 finalists. A jury that included Me to We child-rights advocate Craig Kielburger did the rest.

Brown, whose day job is raising money for the B.C. Cancer Foundation, was gratified by the support for the Aviva pitch, which energized Selkirk. She calls the effort a great community builder, but she's also frustrated. "As a parent, I don't mind raising money and getting extras for a school. But a playground is not an extra," she says, noting that they are particularly important for families of modest means. "I believe in public education, and I don't understand why there isn't federal or provincial funding for school playgrounds." She wonders, too, how other inner-city schools-ones without the benefit of affluent parents attracted by Selkirk's French-immersion stream-will manage.

VSB chair Patti Bacchus can't readily answer that question. When she was a parent at Point Grey's Queen Mary Elementary, she tried to redirect a provincial playground grant to a less-affluent school-without success. In her current role she laments her board's role in schools' plight as it struggled to cut $23 million from its budget over the last two years. A year after the Olympics and with a new roof going up over BC Place, she says, "We are saying to kids, ‘We can't afford to give you a playground.' "

Twelve blocks north, Laura Secord, which also has a cadre of activist French-immersion parents, still needs $120,000 to reach its $150,000 goal. Lord Selkirk intends to use its 100th anniversary, which it will celebrate with an open house and classic car show on May 12 and 13, to raise the remaining funds.

The irrepressible Principal Zerbe, whom Brown credits with creating real enthusiasm and community at Selkirk, will be there-with bells on. "Mr. Zerbe looks very good in a dress," Brown opines. "If he hadn't been a principal, he could have been on Broadway."

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