Monday, 19 December 2011

Raiders vs. the Lost ARC

It’s been a busy year for supporters of PCVS and Peterborough’s neighbourhood school network against a hostile takeover by out-of-town forces at KPR.

It was exactly one year ago that ambitious but inexperienced Director of Education Rusty Hick persuaded Trustees to launch the infamous Accommodation Review Committee, or ARC, throwing Peterborough schools into a perverse real-life game of “Survivor,” which Hick himself ended by pointing his imperial finger at PCVS – the most venerable, economical, innovative and academically successful secondary school in the entire Board.

This autumn, the channel has been changed to “Raiders vs. the Lost ARC” as the stalwart supporters of common sense, community-based schools, and PCVS itself have stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the autocratic folly of KPR’s myopic upper management and self-interested or deluded out-of-town Trustees.

At the end of October, the formal petition requesting the Ministry of Education appoint someone to review KPR’s decision went to Queen’s Park. In November, MPP Jeff Leal presented several citizens’ petitions to the legislature, one of which was focused on KPR’s ignorance of Ontario’s plans to increase the population density of downtown Peterborough, as reported in this Examiner article. Even former local PC candidate for MPP Alan Wilson got busy, attempting to set up meetings to lobby Trustees to change their minds. On November 24, a dozen concerned Peterborough citizens, including many experienced and well-respected professionals, formally asked the KPR Board of Trustees to let common sense to prevail and put the brakes on the ill-considered closure decision, while hundreds more occupied the Fisher Drive building.

On December 5, nearly five hundred PCVS students and supporters, led by tireless senior students Matt Finlan and Kirsten Bruce and powered by PCVS’s dynamic drummers, held a hugely successful rally at Queen’s Park, bringing Leal out of the legislature to speak to them. Our MPP told the Examiner that he “admired the engagement and passion” of the PCVS “Raiders,” who reminded him of his own days as a student activist. NDP Education Critic Peter Tabuns also came out to voice his support for the cause.

On December 15th, hundreds more PCVS supporters gathered at Fisher Drive as veteran Peterborough Trustee Roy Wilfong, responding to citizens’ requests at the previous Board meeting, made a motion to delay the closing of PCVS by one year. Wilfong’s motion was, predictably, supported only by Peterborough Trustee Rose Kitney and by Norwood Trustee Shirley Patterson, who must sense that Norwood District High will be the next to be closed down as part of KPR’s relentless drive to consolidate control and cut accomodation costs to pay for exorbitant and ill-advised expenditures on technology. At KPR it continues to be the tail that wags the dog, as Hick was allowed by Board Chair Diane Lloyd, over the objections of Wilfong, to behave as if he were an elected Trustee rather than an employee. Hick and Lloyd continued to downplay the enormous ramifications of the decision they obstinately refuse to reconsider, as it was Lloyd’s turn to compare the closing of a thriving, 180-year-old institution, a case of major civic and educational surgery, to “pulling off a band-aid,” as reported by the Examiner.

Asbestos-removal and other renovations at TASSS are expected to cost over a million dollars. Buses to bring students to the inconveniently-located school next year are expected to cost another $200,000. Remember that KPR also paid Don Blair $60,000 to chair the ARC, and ZAS architects $27,000 to provide a prohibitive estimate on converting the TASSS building to board offices. And don’t forget the $7 million in so-called “capital costs” the board has spent this year on computer technology likely to be out of date in five years or so.

Small wonder, then, that KPR adminstration is so desperate to shut schools, deprive French teachers of classrooms, force teachers to buy classroom supplies out of their own salaries, and are reportedly aiming to eliminate preparation time from any elementary teachers without a home-room in the upcoming collective bargaining session.

Let’s do some counting here. On the side of maintaining PCVS we have Wilfong and Kitney (the Peterborough Trustees who actually sat on the Lost ARC), Mayor Daryl Bennett, city council, the DBIA, the Chief of Police, Liberal MPP Jeff Leal, former PC candidate Alan Wilson, the NDP education critic, the entire PCVS school community, and thousands upon thousands of Peterborough citizens, whose tax-dollars supply KPR’s budget.

On the side of closing PCVS, we have seven out-of-town Trustees, one of whom was forced in 1984 to resign his position as MP for Scarborough due to tax-evasion and in 2008 was asked (but refused) to resign his position as Trustee over public comments blaming immigrants for Canada’s problems, one of whom was removed from the Board in 2010 for failing to file his campaign finances, one of whom admitted she had no clue that intermediate schools had been part of the ARC’s focus, and one of whom is a listing agent for substantial property in the TASSS area. We also have the TASSS school community, which is largely composed of students bused in from Keene. Finally, we have the pride of Port Perry and his crew of number-crunchers attempting to manage our school system as if it were a chain of warehouses.

KPR’s response to the Peterborough Needs PCVS petition for administrative review, filed at the end of November, is available on the KPR website. Much of the defense offered by Hick and Lloyd for standing by their tremendously unpopular and autocratic decision amounts to saying “we did the bare minimumwhat’s the problem?” I’m sure every KPR teacher has heard this same line coming from the mouths of students who rush through their work as it were a race to the finish line, then approach the teacher’s desk dumbfounded as to why they got a “D.” The document’s opening point says it all, presenting the rationale for closing a school as simply that four secondary schools had an average student population of less than 75%, so therefore only three schools are needed. This gives us confidence that KPR administrators are capable of grade four level math.

Given the emphasis on standardized EQAO testing for all Ontario students, and the requirements of teachers to continually upgrade their credentials, is it not time for administrators to be held to some basic standards? The egregious examples of institutional ignorance before us at Fisher Drive should be motivation enough for the establishment of an “Administrative Quality Accountability Office” – or “AQAO.”

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a battery of questions testing administrative competence to which the brilliant minds at KPR could set themselves down at a desk to answer for a day or two every few years. If we could develop a province-wide test, we could compare results with other Boards of Education, and find out just how poor a job KPR is doing relative to neighbouring boards.

Imagine administrators taking home six-figure salaries at your expense struggling to answer basic questions such as “how many minutes did you spend in a KPR school this year?” and “how many teachers and students do you actually communicate with on a regular basis?” Advanced portions of the AQAO test might quiz administrators on the principles of democracy, urban planning, community well-being, the mental health of children and teens, and even (dare I say it) provincial educational policy.

2012 has to be an improvement on 2011. We’ve already upgraded from “Survivor” to “Raiders vs. the Lost ARC.” Let’s make sure the next show on station KPR continues the trend to better quality "programming" for Peterborough.

Maybe, just maybe, as the Lorax said, if we all care a whole awful lot, sanity will prevail, and our mother tree won’t be looted by Grinches bent on hauling our Whoville gifts back to Fisher Drive.

Dear Santa: I’ve been very good this year. All I’m asking for is not to have the heart ripped out of my neighbourhood. I hope it's not too much to ask.

Thanks in advance,


PS: the carrots are for the reindeer

Monday, 12 December 2011

Doughnut-Hole Planning and Tax Revolts; or, If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Peterborough has been a model of regular, sustainable growth ever since its incorporation as a city in 1905, just two years before the cornerstone of the current PCVS building was laid. At that time, the former village of Ashburham, known as “East City,” became part of Peterborough, and the system of five wards, representing the north, south, east, west and central areas of the city, was established. Today these are known as Northcrest, Otonabee, Ashburnham, Monaghan and Town wards.

Back then, PCVS was the only secondary school in the city. In 1952, Kenner CVI was built to serve the expanding south end, named after PCVS graduate Hugh Kenner, who had become a notable English professor in the U.S. In 1960, Adam Scott was built in the north end, and as the baby boom children began reaching their teenage years, Crestwood and TASSS were added to the fleet in 1963 and 1967 to serve not only the city’s west and east ends, but also the outlying rural areas and smaller towns.

When the Peterborough city and county school boards merged in 1969, all five high schools were in place and the population of the city was about 50,000 – about 10,000 in each ward.

Forty-two years later, the city’s population is about 75,000 – an average of about 15,000 in each ward. This growth rate is equal to about 1% per year - an eminently manageable rate if there ever was one. The pattern of population growth has been reasonably uniform across the five wards, with Monaghan Ward, now home to over 17,000 citizens, the area which has experienced the most growth. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city in Ontario which has shown a more predictable, steady, and evenly-distributed pattern of growth.

Prior to the 2010 Municipal Election, the City of Peterborough undertook a study to determine whether any changes were needed to the ward boundaries. After studying ten different options, including proposals to reduce the number of wards from five to four, City Clerk Nancy Wright-Laking concluded that the best system was the one already in place. You can read her report here. Wright-Laking wrote that, in addition to the aim of keeping ward populations relatively equal at least ten years into the future, her review team took into account the natural boundaries of the Otonabee River and major thoroughfares (such as Parkhill, Lansdowne, and Monaghan Road) and the distinct characters of the city’s neighbourhoods. No matter how they tried shuffling the boundaries, none of the possible configurations did any better job than the one we’ve been using. If it ain’t broke, the clerk and city council sensibly concluded, don’t fix it.

While the City of Peterborough was reaching this conclusion, the brilliant minds at KPR were thinking otherwise. Having decided to invest huge sums of public money into technology, board managers needed to find ways to economize. The first idea they ran with was the Accommodation Review designed to force one of the city’s five secondary schools to shut down on the premise that fewer schools with more students each would be able to offer more course options.

The ARC, as documented in detail in a series of posts on this blog in November, didn’t have much of an opportunity to look at any aspect of Peterborough’s secondary school network. They weren’t instructed to examine Peterborough’s neighbourhoods, history, or natural boundaries. They weren’t given the City Clerk’s report on ward boundaries as a reference. They weren’t given population projections ten years into the future. They weren’t given any of the tools needed to do the job, in fact, and the sense that the committee members collectively had that something wasn’t right was reflected in their recommendation that a school be closed only as a last resort. Rusty Hick, however, whose personal and professional history is not in Peterborough but in York Region, ignored the group’s sole substantial recommendation, and attempted to charge ahead with a plan to close the last remaining school in Town Ward.

KPR’s complete and utter disregard of the urban geography of Peterborough is most clearly evident from this simple map, showing the empty space at the city's center where PCVS should be.

According to Canada Post letter-carrier maps, fully one-half of Peterborough residences fall within easy walking distance of PCVS, roughly represented by the elliptical area in the center. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the city has in fact grown up around the civic center of which PCVS is a part. In contrast, TASSS and Crestwood were intentionally built on the city’s fringes to accommodate buses bringing students from outside town, and even Adam Scott and Kenner are located closer to the city’s edges than to its core. Note also that TASSS is located less than 1 km from Adam Scott.

The kind of “doughnut-hole” approach to planning in which KPR is indulging is exactly what progressive urban designers and conscientious city staff across North America have been trying to avoid in the past twenty years, learning from the negative examples of decaying industrial towns in southern Ontario and the American midwest.

The Province of Ontario’s policy on development has emphasized the need to limit urban sprawl and increase population density in existing built-up areas. Peterborough’s city planners and councillors have made a concerted effort to encourage re-development of properties in the city’s core - including the former King Edward and Central elementary schools and former school board offices (the latter two facilities now residential apartments, with the old King Eddie site now home to the new YMCA). The express aim of the province and the city is to increase the population density of Peterborough’s downtown area by 50% over the next twenty years.

If KPR isn’t going to provide any full-service schools to Town Ward, why should Town Ward property owners share any of their tax dollars with KPR? What’s to stop Town Ward property owners from simply checking off a different box on their property tax form?

Answer: nothing.

How would the all-knowing KPR number-crunchers feel if Town Ward property-owners suddenly felt like directing their millions of tax dollars to the French Public school system instead of KPR, or the Catholic board, or even the French Catholic board?

Maybe then they’d see the effect of their doughnut-hole planning as they bite into their budgets to find an empty space where the money should be.

Not all new development will be confied to the city’s core, however, as some degree of suburban expansion is inevitable. The area most likely to be next to be built up is the city’s northwest. New subdivisions are already in progress just north of Highland Heights Public School and in the Ravenswood area off Parkhill West. The city has designated the areas around Jackson Creek, much of which is currently outside existing city limits, for development. West of Fairbairn is the Lily Lake Planning Area, while west of Ravenwood is the Jackson Planning Area. On November 7, just five weeks after KPR Trustees voted to shut down PCVS, Peterborough City councillors authorized a $3.5 million upgrade to the pumping station at 1100 Parkhill Road west in anticipation of future residential development in these areas. You can read the utility services report here.

It's obvious that KPR strategists have “no clue” as to the urban evolution of Peterborough, past or future. Instead of acting as if the City of Peterborough exists only to collect property-tax revenues to feed KPR’s budget, the suits at Fisher Drive might consider dropping by City Hall one day, picking up a wall-map, and having a chat with some city planners, or even the Mayor.

Such a visit might even afford them a chance to say hello to PCVS, the "Mother Tree" of Peterborough’s healthy secondary school orchard, to which they are so anxious to put their axes.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Creativity and Community

As PCVS takes a field trip to Queen’s Park, the time is propitious to consider the power of the creative mind in community.

KPR administration appears exceptionally eager to pluck the Integrated Arts program from PCVS and transfer it to TASSS. Out-of-town, out-of-touch Trustee Gordon Gilchrist and others have fixated on the idea of thus turning TASSS into an “Academy of Arts, Science and Technology.”

How much more inspirational a “science and technology” school sounds when prefaced by “arts.”

While the study of science is obviously essential to human progress, the simple fact is that it generates very little in the way of community energy.

The performing arts, by contrast, bring large groups of students, teachers, and families together on an ongoing basis to work and to enjoy, to share thoughts, feelings and information. Theatre, music and dance oblige people from disparate backgrounds to co-operate creatively, and performances create community bonds among audience members whose significance may extend throughout the numberless pathways of our social network.

KPR administration has stated that they intend to turn PCVS into a Centre for Independent Studies, catering to students who need to work on their own because of personal circumstances. I'm a fan of independent studies programs, and in fact took advantage of one to finish high school myself. But the fact is that most of those programs can happen almost anywhere. What PCVS has been building for decades is a de facto "Centre of Excellence in Collaborative Studies," if we want to adopt the type of jargon used by KPR. And it has been among the best schools in Eastern and Central Ontario in this respect for some time now, leading the way on more than one front. 

PCVS has always been known for its focus on leadership, and as the cornerstone of our city for as long as it has existed, the school has contributed immeasurably to making Peterborough a great place to live. Among the long list of noteworthy PCVS graduates are Research in Motion CEO Jim Balsillie, Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett, and many prominent Peterborough lawyers. In the past four years there have been an astonishing three PCVS grads who have won a Loran award, a national scholarship focusing on leadership, of which only a few dozen are given out across the thousands of secondary schools in Canada each year.

In the past ten years, however, there has also been an incredible outpouring of musical talent from PCVS, beginning with Juno-award winning singer-songwriter Serena Ryder.

Ryder never misses an opportunity to credit PCVS with her development as an artist. A YouTube clip of Serena discussing PCVS is here , and her professional website is here. I remember coming home from Toronto one day, about twelve years ago, to my house on McDonnel Street to find the teenage Serena leading my roommates and friends in a vocal jam session. Serena went on to develop musical partnerships with prominent Peterborough songwriters and instrumentalists living downtown, such as Dave Tough and Beau Dixon, as she honed her craft.

Ryder’s success wasn’t a fluke. Year after year PCVS has been the crucible from which collaborative, creative musical talent has emerged. I’ve linked websites to the names on the following list so you can get a sense of the stature and the sound of these PCVS graduates.

Former PCVS students Wyatt Burton and Jessie Pilgrim helped establish the The Silver Hearts,  a large ensemble featuring unusual arrangements of roots and old-time music which has toured across Canada and internationally while remaining a local favourite. You can watch a beautiful black and white clip from 2002 here.

Highly respected bassist Dan Fortin and keyboardist Jonah Cristall-Clarke went on to prominence in the Toronto jazz world, with Cristall-Clarke now based in London, England. Cristall-Clarke performed professionally with Fortin in jazz trios during their high school years, and also lent his chops to the PCVS funk group Otonabee Groove.

Fortin and Cristall-Clarke perch above the Otonabee with sax-man Andy Cragg
during their "Mood Swings" days

Child prodigy Jimmy Bowskill found in PCVS a place which could accommodate him as he grew into adulthood while performing professionally and putting together his current blues/rock/rockabilly trio which now tours internationally. You can hear him on this YouTube clip performing a BB King number at Toronto’s Hard Rock Cafe when he was still in grade 10.

Members of the local group The Avenues, who continue to tour nationally and perform in Peterborough, also attended PCVS. A big, Silver Hearts-like group called Candle Cave Ensemble lit up downtown Peterborough regularly for several years, thanks to a large cast of PCVS students. Guitarist Sam Gleason and keyboardist Aaron Hoffman were performing professionally while still at PCVS, and are now on their way up through the ranks in Toronto. 

This Examiner article from last week reports that a PCVS fundraiser concert is being planned for Showplace on January 21.  There won’t be any shortage of talent onstage, as Ryder, the Silver Hearts, Bowskill and the Avenues are all scheduled to perform. It should be a heck of a show – and a heck of a community party.
Musical success requires a particular, collective approach to creativity. Too often we conceive of creativity purely as a quality of a gifted individual, a special person who is inspired by the muses, or as a lone Romantic artist pursuing his or her unique vision.

The reality of creativity is that it depends on community, especially with respect to the performing arts. Anyone can practice scales and arpeggios in the bedroom until the cows come home, but no one becomes a successful musician without constant, ongoing interaction with collaborators and audiences. Even musicians like Ryder who are accustomed to performing solo can’t develop in a vaccuum, and even when she’s alone onstage she is using all her faculties to communicate with her audiences.

With such a hot core of creativity and community in the center of Peterborough, you’d think that the administrators at KPR would be falling all over themselves to encourage and promote PCVS, if for no other reason than PCVS's generation of talent makes KPR look good without costing them an extra cent or requiring administrators to even do anything. Unfortunately, the sterile environment at Fisher Drive seems to suck any creativity from the people who take up professional residence there.

Except for one area, that is: accounting. Thanks to the "creative" accounting practices among KPR number-crunchers, administrators have found a way to re-classify classroom technology expenses as capital expenditures in order to allow them to spend $7 more million this year on digital technology. That’s in addition to the $14 million of your money they already spent on the same thing in 2009 and 2010.

How computer technology that’s only going to last five years can be classified as capital alongside school buildings is not completely clear. The Ottawa-Carleton school board doesn't do it. The Limestone board doesn't do it. The Durham board doesn't do it. In future posts, we’ll look more closely at KPR’s "creative" accounting practices and technology expenditures in comparison with these other boards.

In the meantime, you might ask any of the nationally-known musicians listed above how much of their success is due to computers in the classroom, as compared with how much is due to living day-to-day in the center of a community which values and fosters collective creativity.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Where Do We Go From Here? part three: Time for Teachers to Take Charge

Teachers at many KPR schools, not just PCVS, have felt that they’ve been under pressure from both their union executives and KPR administration to keep their criticisms of decisions made by Board administrators to themselves.

Any employee of any organization will naturally feel disinclined to voice their criticisms of their employer openly, regardless of the situation. No one wants to make political enemies, or to put their supervisors in an uncomfortable position.

Nevertheless, one may easily see that such a chill on critique in the workplace, especially a workplace specifically designed to serve the public, will not have positive long-term results.

The fact of the matter, whether they admit it or not, is that management needs unions to help them run their organizations.

Union work isn’t particularly exciting or glamourous, and often union executives have a difficult time getting their members to take an active interest in what they do. After all, much union work is really a kind of ancillary management, and if the front-line workers wanted to be managers, most would already have gone that route. Public school teachers typically thrive on direct interaction with children and young adults. If they thrived on paperwork, they wouldn’t have become teachers in the first place.

Unions usually only make the news when their relationship with their employer has broken down and work stoppages threaten. News media almost always focus on wage demands, which are easy for the public to understand, rather than on substantive issues around working conditions, which most members of the public don’t understand or care about. On the personal level, employees usually only pay attention to their unions when they have grievances to pursue.

Equally important, however, is the union’s role in assisting the ongoing management of the organization by keeping on top of management decisions on a day-to-day basis. A really effective union local is the result of an active and aware membership who are willing to contend for executive positions, communicate frequently with one another and with their executives, help the executive keep a close eye on management, and demand that the executive and any staff at the union office hold management to high standards and don’t let mere wage negotiations hog center stage. This is especially important today, because salaries are largely determined by Queen’s Park. With little local control by either Board or union over wages, working conditions and learning conditions should be of paramount importance.

If the locals of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) have not taken the opportunity to speak out against a series of questionable decisions by KPR, from the balanced day, through huge expenditures on technology at the expense of educational quality, and now the proposed closing of PCVS, this may be the natural result of an inattentiveness on the part of teachers to their union locals.

The quality of teachers in the Peterborough area has never been higher. The emphasis placed in recent years on professionalizing teachers, requiring them to take additional qualification courses on an ongoing basis, and encouraging specialization, has resulted in an exceptional level of awareness across the spectrum. Teachers arguably know more about what’s going on their schools than do their principals. They certainly know more than Superintendents and other administrators, who can’t possibly keep track of all the classrooms for which they are supposedly responsible. Yet too often important information never makes it beyond the ears of other teachers.

Both elementary and secondary teachers need to take charge of their union locals, to make those locals into vehicles for positive change in the school system. ETFO and OSSTF should be seen by the public as working day-to-day to make sure the public’s tax dollars are being spent wisely by KPR administrators.

Step Three: All KPR teachers should make it their business to take a more active role in their unions, and to direct their executives to advocate publicly for better administration.

Another important point to consider is that almost all teachers are also property tax payers. Although teachers are paid from the public purse, they also pay into it, not merely through provincial income tax, but from their own property taxes. Even if teachers feel it improper to voice their criticisms of KPR’s management decisions in public, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from communicating their frustration as property-owners to our MPP Jeff Leal, who is paid to represent the interests of all Peterborough-area residents at Queen’s Park.

This is particularly important when it comes to KPR’s apparent attitude toward neighbourhood schools. Property tax payers deserve to have their dollars spent on school services for their own neighbourhoods, not just on mega-schools and new technology.

Step Four: All KPR teachers who live in the area should write to Jeff Leal to let him know that, as property-owners and taxpayers, they want Queen’s Park to monitor KPR’s decisions, and that they want neighbourhood schools made a priority.

It only takes a few minutes – here’s his email address:

If every KPR teacher took a few minutes to write a quick email, Leal’s mailbox would be full of communication from the people who know the most about our school system.

And that can only be a good thing.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Where Do We Go From Here? part two: Two "Full-Time Trustee Equivalents" are Better Than One

Does anyone outside the Fisher Drive boardroom think that KPR administration is doing a decent job of managing our schools and tax dollars?

Any one?

KPR Board of Trustee meetings in 2011 have looked little different from the ARC meetings of the spring: a steady stream of educated citizens, including many community leaders, consume most of the meeting time presenting arguments against the administration’s poorly-conceived decisions, and receive virtually no response from the public’s representatives at the table.

Then everyone goes back to their day jobs for two weeks while KPR administrators continue to take home six-figure salaries at the public expense while blundering their way through the glass-and-cubicle world of Fisher Drive, mismanaging our schools by remote control.

How can $377 million worth of education spending every year be left under the guidance of a mere handful of individuals who appear utterly out of touch with both the school communities and the public, and who demonstrate little awareness of provincial policy or the ramifications of the administrative decisions they rubber stamp?

How can our public schools, which comprise one of the very foundations of our civil society, institutions which play a pre-eminent role in the day to day lives of almost every family, be left with virtually zero public governance?

The situation boggles the mind. And yet our Liberal government, the Trustees themselves, and school board administrators alike go about their business as if it made all the sense in the world.

Here’s a chart showing how the number of Trustees for any given Ontario public school board is determined, based on the number of citizens paying taxes to that Board. The number arrived at here can be adjusted according to the land-area of the jurisdiction, population density patterns, and other factors. In most cases, the possible adjustments make no difference. In the case of KPR, our only adjustment is the addition of a First Nations representative to our group of 10 for a total of 11. This chart is on page 30 of the 2010 Ministry of Education Trustee guide, which also explains how the distribution of the trustees is to be made through the jurisdiction.

1000s of taxpayers
taxpayers per trustee



Most boards were designed to fall in the middle of this range. The largest category in the chart was created strictly for the Toronto District School Board. Note the strange discrepancies the chart creates, whereby taxpayers in a Board in the upper range of one category have less representation than those in a Board whose population falls within the lower ranges of the next category up. 

KPR, serving about 230,000 public school supporters (out of a total population of about 300,000 in the area), has an operating budget almost twice the size of the Limestone Board, whose largest population center is Kingston. The Durham Board, whose largest city is Oshawa, has a taxpayer base and budget almost twice the size of KPR’s, yet all three boards are governed by roughly the same number of Trustees (between 9 and 11). Even the Ottawa-Carleton Board, one of the largest in the province, has only 12 Trustees.

There’s a complicated formula to determine how much money Trustees can be paid, but it ends up being only about $10,000 per year. Think of it this way: our entire Board of Trustees gets paid much less than the Director of Education does all by himself. In fact, the entire Board earns about as much as does one principal.

This means that our publically-elected governance over a $377 million budget funded by nearly a quarter of a million taxpayers amounts to about one person’s work-time per year.

Is it any wonder, then, that School Board administrators are permitted to carry on as if they were teenage boys taking a joyride behind the wheel of their parents’ high-power car?

With less than five years of experience at Fisher Drive between them, Hick and Mangold appear dizzy with their newfound power and oblivious to speed limits, warning signs, and basic rules of the road. Imagine one stepping on the gas, gunning the big $377 million engine as fast as he can into the night, while the other leans out the window from his passenger seat, eagerly anticipating his turn behind the wheel.

And where are their parents?

Our democratically-neglected Trustees sit impassively in the Boardroom when members of the community come to complain of the dangerous on-road antics of their charges. One says she’ll think about possibly talking it over with the rest of the elders. Maybe in a few weeks.

The sad truth is that our Boards of Trustees have been purposely set up not to provide democratic, community-based guidance over our schools, but rather to discourage it. They serve to shield both the local administration and the provincial government from accountability to the citizens who pay for and use the schools, and pay the salaries of the administrators themselves, the Trustees, Ministry officials, and legislators.

It's high time that our MPP Jeff Leal and the Liberal government stopped hiding behind this sham system. To address the democratic deficit around school boards by altering the chart above would cost almost nothing in the way of tax dollars. What rationale could there be for allowing such a wide discrepancy between taxpayers regarding their representation, whereby a supporter of the Limestone DSB shares her Trustee with about 15,000 others, but a supporter of KPR in Peterborough shares hers with about 30,000 others?  

Jeff Leal is reportedly in favour of increasing Peterborough’s representation at the Board of Trustees. But can we count on him to actually do anything to make this happen?

Let me propose Step Two:

Leal, Premier McGuinty, and the Minister of Education Laurel Broten should be aggressively lobbied to improve the formula by which Trustees are allocated across the province.

Leal and McGuinty shouldn't be allowed to hide behind
our democratically-neglected and ineffective Trustees

Maybe, if we all lobby really hard, by 2014 we might even get up to the equivalent of two full-time human brains governing our $377 million local school system.

Maybe then thousands of citizens wouldn’t be forced to expend endless amounts of their own energy trying to prevent two men with less than five years collective experience at Fisher Drive from racing to shut down a priceless 180-year-old school, leaving central Peterborough with no schools of any kind in return for its annual contribution of many millions of tax dollars.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Where Do We Go From Here? part one: Let's Prioritize Community over Technology

Over the past six weeks, this blog has endeavoured to show in detail the many wrong turns taken by civil servants and elected officials in the lead-up to the astonishing move by our current Board of Trustees and educational administrators to hastily vote out of existence one of Peterborough’s most important, well-regarded, and longest-standing civic institutions.

The desire for centralized control over education stemming from the Harris years has finally reached its irrational but inevitable terminus in the current KPR administration’s paradoxical move to undermine the very foundations of a community which it is the Board’s mandate to serve, and whose expenses are paid by its tax dollars.

That a decision to close the best-performing school in the fleet, with the deepest community roots, could appear to be both rational and defensible to a group of administrators and elected officials is a powerful indication that the policy and decision-making mechanisms behind our provincial and local education systems are woefully inadequate.

So – where do we go from here?

The next several posts will examine possible futures, practical solutions, and progressive policy suggestions.

To begin, it will be helpful if we step back from the attempt to close PCVS far enough to see how it fits in with other decisions made by KPR administrators recently.

The most prominent of these is the implementation of Wi-Fi.

Wireless technology was implemented this past summer throughout our schools, in readiness for the current school year. The KPR Board of Trustees received a steady stream of citizen complaints over this decision, but chose to ignore them, even going so far as to cut off public delegations to the Board on the subject. The primary focus of public discontent was, and is, the issue of safety. Why expose children to continuous radiation, unnecessarily? is a question the technology’s opponents have rightly asked.

The cost of the technology has come under less scrutiny. The 2011-2012 KPR budget announced a $7 million computer hardware and software expenditure this year, as you’ll see on page 5. Its hard to imagine on what grounds software can be considered a “capital expenditure,” but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Presumably, a significant portion of this was for Wi-Fi systems, laptop computers and “smart boards.”

Have a look through the previous few annual budgets, available through the same link above. Though considering classroom technology expenditures to be “capital” is a new practice, spending $7 million a year on computer technology is not new to KPR, as previous budgets show. In both 2008-09 and 2009-10, the operating expenditure for classroom technology was well over this figure. In 2009-10, the province’s “technology refresh program” kicked in an extra $420,000 in revenues for this purpose, but in general, as you can see from the “Grants for Student Needs” section on the revenue pages on the recent budgets, the province’s basic support for classroom technology is to be considerably less than this amount – in fact, between $1 million and $2 million a year.

The discrepancy in these figures suggests that KPR administrators and Trustees have been making decisions to prioritize technology over other important educational commitments.

Such a direction is in keeping with public statements made by Diane Lloyd, Gordon Gilchrist and Steven Cooke in which technological upgrading has been presented as a self-evident good and a major priority.

It would also be in keeping with the many reports of penny-pinching measures at schools around Peterborough.

At one city school, a French teacher is obliged to travel from classroom to classroom, carting around all her materials, making it next to impossible for a proper second-language learning space to be created, while an available classroom sits empty, locked by KPR administrators in an attempt to save a few dollars a day. At another city school, administrators forcibly changed the bell times by a substantial amount so they could use one fewer bus, supposedly to save money. This move backfired, as several families simply changed schools, reducing enrolment and therefore funding, mitigating the proposed savings while inconveniencing hundreds of people. And remember that at the last Board meeting Hick and Mangold tried to justify disrupting Kenner’s school community by transferring the intermediate programs out of Kenner with the argument that they could save a few thousand bucks on custodial costs.

This is the same administration which spent $27,000 on a TASSS-conversion feasibility study and paid Don Blair $60,000 to chair the ARC.

Although the official line regarding the need for the secondary school accommodation review has been that small schools create programming limitations, and KPR administrators have denied that the motivation to close a school is financially-based, the evidence points to the contrary.

If KPR is spending millions more dollars year after year on computer technology than the province is providing for such a purpose, while still filing a balanced budget, where is the money coming from?

And what, exactly, is the $2 million-plus in annual Special Purpose grants specifically to deal with declining enrolment (which you will see on the Revenue charts on page 3 of the budgets) being used for, if not to keep schools open?

Imagine what the York Region-style, big-sprawl mentality with which Fisher Drive seems to be infected sees when it looks at Peterborough’s secondary student population as an aggregate. Could that mindset be saying to itself that they could get by with fewer buildings, fewer principals, and fewer custodians, freeing up money to pay for those Wi-Fi routers, which are apparently now a capital expense?

It’s all a matter of priorities. Clearly, neighbourhood-based school communities do not rank very highly on the lists kept by KPR administrators – or by some Trustees.

One does not have to look very far to see that this prioritizing of computer technology over community integrity is completely at odds with the priorities of the families of school-age children and teenagers throughout the city whom KPR is meant to serve.

It’s time for KPR’s elected Trustees to recognize that smart boards don’t make people smarter, nor does hi-speed internet access get students to think faster.

It’s time for Trustees to officially acknowledge that the educational experience all comes down to human interaction. It’s time for them to recognize that communities are centered around schools, and that maintaining a healthy network of neighourhood-based school communities should be the highest priority at all times.

A true “smart Board” of Trustees would not let itself get carried away with the fantasy that flooding classrooms with “smart boards” could ever be worth sacrificing school communities to accomplish.

Thus we arrive at our first step going forward.

Step 1: Our Trustees should be instructed by citizens to give clear, ongoing policy direction to KPR’s administrators to prioritize Peterborough’s invaluable network of neighbourhood schools now and in the future.