Wednesday, 26 October 2011

We Are Not Alone

This week the petition to the new Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, for administrative review of KPR’s decision to close PCVS will be presented. The “re-review,” which is likely to be granted due to the bizarre nature of KPR’s accommodation review process and Hick’s last-minute reversal, probably won’t get underway until January. In the next several posts, we’ll look in detail at how and why KPR’s accommodation review policy is contradictory and ineffective, revisit some of the process that led up to the contentious recommendation, and compare it with the processes at other Boards and the province’s actual policies on the matter. We’ll also look at the history of the mysterious “funding formulas” that lurk behind most Ontario school boards’ problematic school-closure decisions.

But first, let all who are outraged in Peterborough be assured: we are not alone.

Last year in Oshawa, an Accommodation Review Committee made a decision to close Dr. F.J. Donevan Collegiate Institute in east-central Oshawa, not far from the boundary the Durham Board shares with KPR. Donevan had been built in 1957 with a capacity of 840. There were 630 students in 2009 and enrolment was projected by the Durham Board to fall to 410 by 2016. Just a kilometer and a half away, the Board in 1967 had built Eastdale CVI, with a capacity of 1056. Eastdale was almost fully enrolled in 2009, but only because it was temporarily housing students who would be eventually sent to the new Maxwell Heights being built in north Oshawa. Once the new school was opened, enrolment at Eastdale was expected to drop, and fall to 566 in 2016. Both schools, then, looked to be at about 50% enrolment within six years. Overall, the situation was comparable, except for the distance between them, to that of TASSS and Kenner.

Durham’s accommodation review process lasted one year and complied much better with Ministry guidelines than Peterborough’s did. It offered eleven working group meetings for the ARC in addition to the four public meetings, and in May of 2010 the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the recommendation to close Donevan and consolidate the students at Eastdale.

Under such conditions, one might expect that the process had gone smoothly and a proper decision had been made. Looking on from a distance, the numbers seem to add up: two half-empty schools located nearby one another combined into one fully-enrolled school.

Not every one was satisfied, however. Donevan students, predictably, were not pleased, and commented publicly on the positive environment of the smaller classes at Donevan. Even those who seemed prepared to accept the move weren’t pleased at the rush the Board seemed to be in to consolidate them immediately and thereby create a school temporarily overpopulated by 30%. Parents criticized the process, including one member of the ARC, Heather Rivet, who thought the committee should have considered more than just the two schools and considered more creative solutions. Among the ARC members was Bob Malcolmson, the CEO of the Oshawa Chamber of Commerce. During the process, Malcolmson, already sensing that he was merely part of a sham designed to arrive at the decision the Board had already made, moved to better publicize the process with a mailout to every home within the schools’ catchment areas. When the decision to close Donevan was reached by the ARC, a minority of the group, incuding Malcolmson, filed a report disagreeing with the committee’s decision.

Malcolmson addressed the Board at the first opportunity following the ARC’s report, and spoke plainly of his view that “the process is flawed and is simply a formalization of decisions already made,” as reported in this article. He then drew attention to the Community Schools Alliance, an organization formed by municipalities across Ontario in response to the lack of regard large, relatively unaccountable School Boards continue to show toward the very communities which the schools are intended to serve. Malcolmson provoked a negative reaction from Trustees. The Oshawa Chamber of Commerce took the issue to the Ontario association of Chambers of Commerce, who moved to support the Community School Alliance’s aims to make School Boards more accountable to property taxpayers.

A press release issued by the provincial association of Chambers of Commerce at the time stated that the “one area of the property tax base that has flown under the radar screen and is currently lacking accountability and transparency to the taxpayers is the education portion of the property taxes and education development charges,” reported Durham The Oshawa Chamber of Commerce website quotes from Malcolmson’s letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty, in which he maintains that “schools are valuable pieces of our public infrastructure and should be closed only as a last resort,” and that “the ARC process required by the Education Act is treated merely as a formality by school boards, which implement the predetermined outcomes recommended by their administrations. The current process is flawed and appears to give school boards absolute power with no communication with the municipality.”

The Community School Alliance’s website has not been updated since last year. It appears as though some of the impetus for the group came from southwest Ontario, where the Thames Valley District School Board had attempted, in a fashion not unlike the situation in Oshawa, to consolidate Sir George Ross and Thames secondary schools, both in London, Ontario. That ARC, like ours, felt that not enough information was available and that a decision of great impact shouldn’t be rushed. In stark contrast to ours, that ARC proposed to disband itself rather than push ahead with an ill-considered and untimely decision. You can read their final report here. According to the CSA website, a letter of intent to work together in future planning was signed in September of 2010 between the TVDSB and Middlesex County.

Who pays attention to school closings in other cities? Generally, we’re so focused on our own neighborhood schools that we barely know what’s going on in other neighborhoods in our own city. The “Survivor” charade through which Hick put the citizens of Peterborough ensured that we were so focused on championing our own schools that we wouldn’t look around the province to see what other citizens were being put in similar positions by other irresponsible school boards.

It’s time to look into refortifying the Community Schools Association and join forces with other municipalities and local chambers of commerce to force Queen’s Park to actually change the nature of their funding formulas rather than just tinker with them, to write policy to oblige school boards to work with communities rather than against them, and re-constitute Boards of Trustees to more democratically reflect their constituencies.

The Liberal minority government of Ontario has never been more ripe for lobbying on this subject.

Laurel Broten is the new Minister of Education.

Former Peterborough city councillor  Jeff Leal remains our Peterborough representative to the Legislature.

I encourage every citizen of Peterborough to write both of them at the links above, expressing your views as to the inadequacy of political, legislative and funding frameworks which could allow KPR to move to close its most venerable, fully-enrolled, popular, centrally-located, and academically successful secondary school on the arbitrary whims of an inexperienced Director of Education, his office-bound number crunchers, and seven Trustees from out of town apparently only dimly aware of Ministry policies and of the community makeup of Peterborough itself.


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