Thursday, 20 October 2011

Manufacturing a Crisis, part six: Playing "Survivor" with Our Schools

What have we concluded so far, based purely on facts and figures, many of them supplied by KPR itself?

Building-capacity is an irrelevant factor entirely. Students perform better at smaller schools. Peterborough schools are the best in KPR according to an independent observer’s calculations of math and literacy scores. PCVS is the best of them all.

If you were a Trustee, what do you think would be a sensible reaction to Hick’s statistics?

Would you accept them as information and go about creating a longer-term plan regarding demographic models and specialized programming?

Would you direct Hick to ensure that experienced, specialized teachers be employed at all schools with a smaller number of students?  

Would you direct staff to undertake a study on reconfiguring the physical space at TASSS to deal with the “reality” of a smaller student body?

Hick handed the ARC and the Trustees a big, heavy hammer, and told them to try repairing a watch with it. 

They handed it back to him, and with one swing he broke the mainspring

If some Trustees thought an Accommodation Review was warranted, why not suggest a smaller scope and more pointed tools? If they did decide to proceed with the Review as Hick proposed, why, when it became obvious that its process wasn’t working and its recommendations were contradictory, not simply accept it as information, and wait a few years to see how enrolment patterns actually shaped up and what new opportunities for programming presented themselves? Why not strike a committee to re-write KPR’s atrocious Accommodation Review policy according to best practices in other Ontario School Boards?

Hick told the trustees on Sept. 29 that they would not be able to to revisit the issue for five years. Diane Lloyd, Chair of the Board of Trustees, caught out at a key moment, appeared not to know what the policy was or what the Ministry guidelines meant.

KPR policy states that “It would be expected, in normal circumstances, that once a school was reviewed, it would not be reviewed again for five years.”

This clearly leaves the option open for the Board to commission another, more focused study if enrolment figures at TASSS or anywhere else suddenly did plunge to an unacceptable level before 2015 for some unforeseen reason.

But keep in mind that Hick’s forecast didn’t even run ahead five years, so there was a big black mystery on the trustees’ horizon. Hick seems to have taken advantage of this to pressure them to rubber stamp his last-minute recommendation, which differed significantly from the actual recommendations of the committee -  that closing a school should be the “last resort.”

As reported in the Peterborough Examiner, Hick insisted that "a school in fact does need to close," when the Committee’s report was first presented to Trustees on June 26, simply repeating the conclusion he had arrived at prior to asking the Trustees to support an Accommodation Review.

Did this idea come from his own head? According to the first item in the Accommodation Review report, both the idea for the massive review and the idea that a Peterborough-area secondary school may need to close came from a Capital Needs Assessment report presented in 2007 primarily dealing with the Board's elementary schools and with growth areas in Clarington. The wording in the June 26, 2011 document, directly quoted from the 2007 document, is: “Monitor secondary enrolment and determine need to close 1.0 secondary school in either Peterborough City or County” (p.17). The target date for review is stated to be 2014. Note that the wording does not say “determine to close,” which would describe Hick’s own attitude. The 2014 target review date was conveniently left out.

What was the reason for the original recommendation to keep an eye on secondary enrolment in Peterborough? The Ministry of Education in 2002-03 did a survey of the condition of all schools in the province and classified Adam Scott as “prohibitive to repair” (p.12). The Ministry’s now out-of-date building-assessment software (ReCAPP) estimated a whopping $17,000,000 in required maintenance. It was the only Peterborough-area Secondary School to be thus identified. According to a document from March 29, 2011, the Ministry is getting new software this year and starting up a new province-wide building assessment.   

So, if the very idea of considering closing a Peterborough secondary school was first floated based on an old Ministry building assessment which will be shortly superseded, certainly prior to the original target date for an Accommodation Review in 2014, then . . . .

why create this artificial crisis?

The fact is, though some will try to deny it, that there has long been a professional jealousy on the part of some TASSS staff regarding PCVS draining away high-achieving students. Hick may well have absorbed some of this in his time at TASSS. We might imagine that Hick saw that TASSS – a large, suburban-style school at which he had worked and which suited his mindset about what a high school should be, with its athletic fields, remote location, and huge capacity – was by far the most vulnerable of all Peterborough schools to being shut down, and might soon become an albatross around his neck. We might imagine that he felt he needed to find a way to get students out of PCVS and into TASSS, and had to do it before the Ministry undertook its own building review which might find TASSS “prohibitive to repair,” given the lack of maintenance it has received to date and its asbestos issues.  

But because PCVS was near capacity and experiencing very slow declines in enrolment, there would be no way to get it under review without creating the over-sized Accommodation Review hinted at in the 2007 document prior to his hiring as Director of Education, which could justify including more than just Kenner and TASSS, even though such a review was three years early.

A pre-determined decision that one school must close was required to create a general belief that Peterborough just wasn’t big enough any more for five secondary schools and to make sure the ARC didn’t accidentally discover that things were actually fine they way they were. In this way it would be possible to pit school against school, drawing attention away from the flawed ARC process and Hick himself, whipping up emotion, and making it almost impossible for the community to objectively analyze the actual data and come up with creative alternatives (which is what ARCs are intended to do). 

With Peterborough school communities engaged in playing a game of “Survivor,” nobody would recognize that the real problem was located in the KPR offices on Fisher Drive.

The crisis manufactured by Hick resembles the crisis manufactured in Ontario education by the Mike Harris government in the late 1990s. The Harris government went about relentlessly amalgamating cities and school boards, chasing economies of scale and centralizing authority in the name of efficiency. KPR is in fact a child of the Harris government’s amalgamation attempts. Why did they need to do all this amalgamation? Because of funding cutbacks. But why were funding cutbacks needed? Answer: they weren’t!

John Snobelen, high school drop-out and Education Minister 1995-97

Harris appointed high school dropout John Snobelen as Minister of Education and they announced huge cutbacks which threw the entire education establishment into a tizzy. Snobelen's Wikipedia page details some of the ugly facts, while this excellent political analysis blog has even more. School boards were prohibited from running deficits, and some were dissolved entirely and replaced by Harris appointees designated to balance the budget. Meanwhile, the Ontario economy continued to roll along in fine shape. Later, some of the cutbacks were compensated for with extra funding for particular purposes. The money was never an issue – they just needed the public to be convinced that it was, so that they could put the education system on the defensive and justify their interventions in what had up to that time generally been community-based decision-making.

Almost everyone involved in the Accommodation Review process seems to have accepted Hick’s autocratic contention that there was no other choice but to close one of the four schools under review. Everyone seems to have accepted that the review was unavoidable and had to happen immediately – even the Trustees, who didn’t remember that the original Capital Needs Assessment had called for a Review for 2014.   

Neither of these beliefs were valid.

Hick seems to have taken advantage of KPR’s clumsy and ineffective Accommodation Review process to divert attention away from this truth. He repeatedly used the word “reality” with respect to declining enrolment and supposed programming limitations, disguising the fact that the “hurry up” scenario he presented to the Board and to the community was largely of his own devising.

Best of all, by including PCVS in the review, he would retain the ability in the last instance, following the non-decision that the ARC was likely to reach, to make his own recommendation to the Board. That decision might include in some way a motion to in some way relocate the highly successful Integrated Arts program from PCVS to TASSS.

Consider the following senarios. If Hick were to have proposed closing PCVS right away in June, the uproar would have begun immediately, making it difficult to proceed. If he had proposed putting off a decision, then changed his mind in September to closing PCVS the way he did, the outcry would be even worse than it is now. Making a preliminary decision to close TASSS, supported by the bizarre and unlikely idea to move Board offices to TASSS, a proposal whose feasibility study was almost certain to sink it, would provoke defensive reactions on the part of the TASSS community – including certain trustees, who look at the school property more as a piece of real estate than a place of learning –  while PCVS supporters would drop their guard in this game of divide-and-conquer. Then, when the decision was reversed, Hick would appear as a hero to his greatly relieved old TASSS community.

When the Peterborough trustees justifiably balked at his plan, the Lloyds and most Clarington and Northumberland trustees remained on side, convincing themselves that moving the Integrated Arts program to TASSS was feasible, desirable, and necessary –  when in fact it is none of the above.

Consider the absurdity of asking the Board to strike an ARC, a committee intended by Ministry policy to provide maximal community input on any decisions regarding the closing of schools which are no longer viable, only to impose a decision from the top on the most viable school of the group.

In the end, seven trustees from out-of-town, who were the least familiar with the Peterborough schools of anyone involved, supported an out-of-town Director who had been on the job for only two years in the unprecedented decision to close down the healthiest secondary school in the entire Board, and the only school of any kind remaining in Peterborough’s central ward.

Unfortunately, few of the trustees seem to have been familiar at all with either KPR’s policy or the Ministry guidelines concerning Accommodation Reviews, despite the fact that they are posted on the KPR website.

Had more trustees known the real reality, rather than Hick’s version, we would not find ourselves in this mess today.

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