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.


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