Thursday, 10 November 2011

How the Farce Unfolded, part three: the PCVS ARC meeting

Anxiety built across the city at the approach of the fourth and final ARC meeting, at which the committee was supposed to present its decision. As the meeting began on May 12 at PCVS, it became clear that the committee hadn’t in fact reached a decision, and more delegations were about to be heard. Despite the fact that a decision of great import to many thousands of Peterborough citizens was supposed to be made, the meeting was reported by PCVS students to have been less well organized than those of their own student groups. Blair noted the Board policy of requiring all meetings to be public, attempting to draw attention to the nominally inclusive process and away from the fact that the process itself made little sense and that few people understood what was going on.

Former TASSS principal John Ringereide was then given extensive floor time, as documented in the minutes. Ringereide had been principal at TASSS through the middle years of the last decade, at the same time that Hick had been principal at Bowmanville. There is no doubt that the two men knew each other in a professional capacity, and when Hick inherited TASSS for the one year he actually spent in a Peterborough school prior to his attempts to close one down, it was a school whose culture bore Ringereide’s influence. Ringereide was to later assume a leading role in the “Put Students First” group, along with Brendan Moher, a real estate lawyer with extensive property holdings in the TASSS neighborhood.

Ringereide stated to the committee his experience as a vice-principal and principal at Courtice, Campbellford, TASSS and Kenner, then proceeded to read a six-page letter with the tone of a real estate advertisement for the facility and property of TASSS, taking note of its tennis courts, shops, and the number of “smart boards” installed. Clearly excited about the sheer size of the school, he waxed nostalgic about how many students once attended, and emphasized the ease with which the facilities could easily accommodate more students again. In fact, Ringereide got so excited, he claimed the school had a capacity of 1600 students, some three hundred more than the 1290 listed by KPR. He claimed that there had been nearly 1200 students when he began in 2004, almost two hundred more than it really did, and that there were 950 when he left in 2008, while KPR lists a figure of 822

Finally, on the last page, Ringereide got around to commenting on the people and culture of TASSS, saying how proud he was of the “open and inclusive culture” in which differences were respected. In so doing he may have been hoping to erase any memories that might be lingering of Aaron Montgomery, the TASSS student who drowned in the Otonabee in December of 2003, reportedly taking his own life for much the same reason that Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley recently took his – bullying.

It certainly appears that Ringereide knew that Hick wanted him to champion the school from a facilities management point of view, which was the sole perspective from which Hick seems to have wanted committee members to view their task. It was at this moment that the “Put Students First” campaign really began. Since he couldn’t speak up for TASSS himself, Hick could presumably rest assured that Ringereide would do the job, while he sat listening.

Ringereide’s sales-pitch naturally neglected to mention any of the less-attractive facts about the school, hoping to leave ARC members with an impression of a shiny, problem-free technological playland with minimal operational costs. The well-documented asbestos issues, for example, were not referred to. The feasibility study subsequently commissioned by KPR to consider renovations to the TASSS building for Board staff offices estimated the asbestos abatement cost at close to a million dollars.

In emphasizing the location of TASSS near the Otonabee River and the Rotary Trail, Ringereide failed to note that it was the school’s very location which had led to the rapid decline in enrolment. He failed to note that the area around TASSS is dominated by retirement condominiums, that there are very few students who live within walking distance of the school, and that there is virtually no potential for urban growth due to the geography of the area. His enthusiasm about the massive size of TASSS concealed the reality that it was built too large in the first place, and his mistaken memories of the student enrolment drew attention away from the plain fact that many of the rural communities which once sent their teenagers to TASSS now send them to other schools. TASSS today has only two direct feeder schools, Armour Heights just south of Parkhill and North Shore in Keene, whose total capacity does not begin to approach the total capacity of TASSS, and there are no possibilities of any other feeder schools within a reasonable distance.

Ringereide is from the Cobourg area and has lived most of his life in that area. He currently resides south of Rice Lake, just down the road from Trustee Gordon Gilchrist, whose xenophobic comments were discussed in earlier posts and who, like Ringereide, has vociferously promoted using every rhetorical flourish the fanciful notion of making TASSS a “state-of-the-art” science and technology “academy.” From Ringereide’s rural retiree perspective, the isolation of the school is a great benefit. Why? For the peculiar reason that it obliges students to remain on the school grounds for lunch.

This comment is not in keeping with the focus and tone of the information around it, and betrays an important aspect of Ringereide’s attitude toward young adults. In Ringereide’s mind, it is inadvisable for students to leave school and be on their own in an urban area. In the ideal world of Hick and Ringereide, apparently, students leave their house and get on a bus every morning, get off the bus at the school grounds, spend their day there, get back on the bus, and return to their houses, with no interactions whatsoever not directly controlled by parents and teachers, and no exposure to the community in which the school is located.

PCVS students'  link to their community appears incomprehensible to Hick and Ringereide

 One can easily see in Ringereide’s comment an anxiety about the location of the very school in which he was speaking, and whose demise he was abetting. Ringereide’s attitude in this sense is remarkably similar to that of his former colleague Hick, another administrator who has never lived in Peterborough and appears uncomfortable with urban areas. The thrust of Ringereide’s commentary was to emphasize the aspects of TASSS which were in the greatest contrast to PCVS, and by implication to denigrate important qualities of the very school in which he was speaking

Considering that Ringereide is not a citizen of Peterborough, resides nowhere near Peterborough, has no children attending Peterborough schools, is a former Board administrator who could in no way be considered a member of the public with an immediate interest in the decision, and was at that moment a guest at PCVS, to call his six-page promotional spiel regarding TASSS “ungentlemanly” would be charitable. Nevertheless, Ringereide succeeded in providing a platform for the launching of the “Put Students First” campaign which would take flight immediately after the expected spurious announcement from Hick that TASSS would have to close. During the campaign Ringereidge would publicly denigrate PCVS as an “antiquated” facility in a letter to the editor of Peterborough This Week.

Roy Brady, a retired teacher, member of the Council of Canadians, and respected community activist, then attempted to be the voice of reason, calling for MPP Jeff Leal to be approached regarding “slowing down” this process to allow community members to make proper decisions. Brady’s rational plea fell on the deaf ears of Hick and Blair, who were determined to stick to the schedule which would see a recommendation to close PCVS made by September. 

Roy Brady's community-oriented perspective was discounted

 After many delegations arguing for the importance of PCVS to the community, Blair finally unveiled five possible scenarios. Blair claimed they had been presented by the Trustees. Roy Wilfong corrected him, and Blair had to admit that they had been prepared by Senior Administration – presumably meaning Hick and himself. However, the so-called “scenarios” were nothing more than the original choices – closing one of the schools, or none. Almost no details as to the ramifications of these basic choices were provided.

As the discussion returned once again to “programming,” a bizarre assertion was made: that lower enrolment would make it “extremely difficult for students to successfully graduate.”

It is hard to fathom how such a determination could be accepted by anyone who had thought about it for more than a few minutes, let alone be the concluding thought of a four month long meeting process charged with making an important decision on the possible closing of a school. Indeed, one might ask, how is it that anyone graduates from Norwood District High School, let alone from Chesley District? Imagine those two hundred students out in Chesley, with literacy and math scores ranking fourth in Ontario, stuck in the school, working with every bit of their might to “successfully graduate” and finding themselves turned away again and again . . . .

Given how late it had now become, two members moved to pause the decision, and gather again in two weeks time. Once more, Blair “ruled the motion out of order.” At this point, Hick was reportedly seen apparently communicating with Blair via laptop messaging. The absurdity of KPR policy was again pointed out, and Blair again stuck to his guns, refusing to consider any other option. Committee members capitulated to Blair’s insistence. After some discussion, the contradictory non-recommendation was reached, which was presented to the Board a few weeks later by Blair himself – that the four schools be consolidated into three – but only as a last resort. With no school named as the likely candidate for closure, Hick and Blair had what they seem to have wanted – carte blanche to act as they had already intended. 

The contradictory way the minutes record the decision having been made reveals the confusion as to both policy and practice among everyone involved, as they state that the “recommendations were voted on by reaching consensus.”  The minutes of the meeting are clearly flawed, as they do not record several important points of information which are recorded at the Board meeting two weeks later, on May 26th, including the fact that consensus was not reached as a considerable number of committee members disagreed with the decision.

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