Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tonight We’re Going to Govern Like It’s 1999

One of the strange paradoxes of the attitudes towards physical facilities that arose with the Harris “Common Sense Revolution” is that construction and maintenance concerns took center stage when it came to making decisions about educational institutions, yet the positive educational benefits actually attributable to buildings were ignored.

Trent University is a case in point.

Gzowski College at Trent, featuring poured concrete walls and floors, immovable desks, automatic lights that shut off spontaneously in the middle of classes, and a Tim Hortons take-out with food-court tables for a common space

Peter Robinson and Catherine Parr Traill colleges were closed, supposedly because “we couldn’t afford them,” and funds redirected to the creation of the bizarre concrete-and-glass monstrosity of Gzowski College, whose every detail of design undermines the educational process. 

Scott House at Catherine Parr Traill College, blessed with beautiful, comfortable Junior and Senior Common Rooms

Hobbs Memorial Library at Peter Robinson College

What are the former campuses of Peter Robinson and Traill colleges used for now? They remain adjuncts to the university, still housing students and offices in various capacities – similar to the way KPR envisions the future for PCVS. In other words, they are still de facto parts of the institution. After all, what else could these campuses really be used for? But they now occupy a very marginal position in an otherwise highly homogenized institution, rather than a pivotal position in a diverse collective.

Sadleir House, former home of the History Department at Trent, now an independent community center

And to add insult to injury, we lost the connection the colleges maintained to Peter Robinson and Catherine Parr Traill themselves, pivotal figures in Peterborough history.

Catherine Parr Traill with her daughters and granddaughter at Stony Lake in 1899, a few days before the end of her life

The Harris government put the cart before the horse, determining education policy based on capital and maintenance expenses for the physical plants themselves, in spite of the fact that, as the KPR budget shows, operations expenses amount to less than 15% of the total cost of education. The result has been an extended series of foolish decisions.

The Liberals supposedly “strengthened” and “fixed” the funding formulas, but because they continued to be inflexible and inequitable in many areas, questionable and contentious school closings continued to be a problem. This 2005 research paper analyzes school closure conflicts and their sources in school board organization. In conclusion, the author observes that “most school boards in closure decisions have framed the issue not as economically motivated decisions but as a move to improve the quality of education.” This strategy, however, it is also observed, “is more likely to lead to more intractable legal and political conflicts if and when communities uncover the boards’ deceptive tactics.”

Sound familiar?

In 2006, the Ministry of Education revised its accommodation review guidelines, presumably in hopes of creating a fairer and more sensible process of rationalizing educational resources. School boards were obliged to revise their own policies regarding the way Accommodation Review Committees, or ARCs, were to provide response to specific school closing decisions, primarily of small elementary schools. The 2006 guidelines are here. They're not hard to read. Give them a try. See if you can do better than the KPR Trustees and administrators at understanding what they mean.

The guidelines call for a “School Valuation Process” by which committee members – a selection of interested parties from the school, the local community and the Board – attempt to achieve an objective view of each school considered for closing and make the best decision possible. Typically, such reviews would end up pitting one vulnerable school against another, creating antagonism between sides. A solid consultation process, it was felt, would help to alleviate the tensions and provide a greater sense of accountability.

At KPR, however, neither Trustees nor staff seemed to feel it particularly urgent to significantly revise their own policy on the matter. A nominal policy compliance was adopted, minimizing the impact of the Ministry’s intentions. Accommodation Review Committees were still conceived as short-lived groups meant to provide feedback from the families immediately involved in a school closure proposal by the Board. At KPR, ARCs were to remain only a public assembly holding a maximum of four meetings to provide response to a decision already made by Board staff.

Other Boards took the Ministry’s intentions more seriously, providing in their policies for a genuine public working group brainstorming and evaluating alternatives regarding potential school closings via a long process of working group meetings, research sessions, and at least four clearly organized public information meetings at which the committees exchanged ideas and information with the interested public.

Predictably, with attitudes such as that of KPR still prevalent in parts of Ontario, contentious school closings continued, and the Ministry received more petitions for review, even following the updated guidelines. One of them was right here in KPR.

In 2007-08, a KPR ARC considering the consolidation of two small rural elementary schools, Cramahe and Castleton, resulted in discontent among small communities not dissimilar in nature from what we're seeing today, but on a much smaller scale. The Ministry received a petition for administrative review, and the facilitator wrote in her report that the KPR policy of making all meetings public was “commendable” (p.15), but notes the problems which arose due to a lack of clarity as to how the public is meant to be involved, which resulted in repetitive discussions that detracted from the decision-making process and raised emotional levels unnecessarily.

Many members of the Cramahe-Castleon ARC felt that the decision had been pre-determined and that the Board had knowingly withheld information and given the committee members a false impression of the situation in order to make sure the group wouldn’t really be able to do what they perceived their job to bei.e. to come up with better ideas than the bean-counters as to how the communities should proceed with their schools. The problem was, the process simply didn’t allow for it. A petition for review was almost inevitable, even though in the end the facilitator recommended sticking with the decision that the Board had made.

The facilitator, you may note, made the observation that KPR’s policy is a model of “plain language.” In her haste to complete the report, she mistook overly-simplistic policy, which discouraged any attempt at sophisticated analysis, for “plain language,” just as she mistook the remnant of old policy requiring only public meetings as "commendable."

The truth is that KPR policy didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now. It was barely revised just last year according to the new 2009 guidelines, which you can view here.

You can look at the draft-in-progress here, and the revised, current version of KPR policy on accommodation reviews here, here, and here (policy, procedures, and school valuation).

 In the next few posts I’ll explain what went wrong and why.

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