Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Playing the Bait-and-Switch in Oakville, part two: what does it mean for Peterborough?

Cooke visited Oakville in September 2008 to investigate the case. He notes that there was obviously a preference by Trustees and administrators for JK-8 schools, which they didn’t bother telling the committee about. Petitioners also complained of misinformation, inaccurate data, undue influence by Board staff, absence of a work plan, lack of focus, and the driving through of a pre-conceived decision at the last minute, circumventing public debate and input – all of which should sound quite familiar to us in Peterborough.

Unlike our own situation, however, the enrolment patterns in Southeast Oakville were highly uneven, and had been an issue for many years. As such, there was general agreement among the school communities concerned that at least one school would be closed. KPR officials tried repeatedly to make this seem to be the case in Peterborough, but succeeded only in creating fear and confusion among the various school communities, because none of the schools being reviewed were actually experiencing any negative effects due to their enrolment. Also unlike our situation, the Halton Trustees who sat on the committee were in favour of the Director’s plan, and helped vote it through, leaving the other committee members, parents, and petitioners on their own to appeal to the Ministry. 

Cooke found that the Board had indeed violated the requirements of policy by failing to be up-front with its preferences – in Ministry-speak, by not providing “alternative accommodation options” – and had caused considerable animosity and mistrust among those whom the Board is intended to serve. Nevertheless, Cooke agreed that the Clearview neighbourhood needed a school, thus endorsing the gist of the Director’s last-minute proposal. That said, he also supported parents in their desire to minimize the busing of their children. He called for improvements to the Halton Board’s policies, and for the Board work with the school communities to find a better solution.

Six months of negotiations ensued, resulting in a compromise whereby a reasonably-sized new school was built at Clearview, and three of the existing six schools maintained, resulting in a minimum of busing, which Cooke stated was a priority issue. A neighbourhood residents’ association’s webpage reports on the initial outcome of the negotiations, which reached a compromise in which E.J. James would close, while the smaller New Central and Chisholm remain open as JK-6 schools.

However, this was not the end of the story. Further meetings were held before the final configuration was reached. E.J.James remained open, and was transformed into the home of the burgeoning French Immersion program from grades 1-8. Brantwood, Linwood, and Chisholm were closed at the end of 2010, while Maple Grove became a JK-8 school and New Central JK-6. 

It appears that the Ministry of Education’s revised 2009 guidelines were largely motivated by the Oakville case, because one of the chief revisions, ignored by the people at KPR who were charged with revising KPR’s policy on the matter in early 2010, was a requirement that the Board “must present to the ARC at least one alternative accommodation option which addresses the objectives and reference criteria outlined in the Terms of Reference.” This is likely in response to the Halton Board’s claim that they didn’t want to appear “biased” or to be pushing ahead their own agenda, in spite of the evidence which strongly suggests that that was exactly what they were doing.

This is the same defence that KPR administrators have made in their response to the Peterborough petitioners’ argument. In fact, Ministry guidelines require Board administration to be up-front with their suggested options specifically in order to discourage the backdoor imposition of Board plans on communities. KPR administrators claim that their generic policy on “Terms of Reference” for ARCs, as stated in their accommodation review policy, article 5, was sufficient, and that they didn’t believe a specific set of Terms of Reference needed to be given to the ARC. In fact, because the KPR policy wasn’t properly updated in 2010 to adhere to the new guidelines, there is no mention of “Reference Criteria” whatsoever in KPR policy, nor is there any statement to the effect that the Board must present at least one alternative accommodation option to the committee.

In essence, the point which KPR reached at the end of the ARC meetings last year was the point at which the Ministry requires Boards to begin the process. The specific recommendations to consider closing either TASSS or PCVS and re-purposing the buildings should have been stated at the outset as “alternative accommodation options,” along with all the programming, financial, and transportation repercussions of each. The ARC would then have proceeded to review these options, add some new ones, and constructively debate the possibilities for the future. KPR administrators bizarrely contend that the simple statement that “four schools needed to be consolidated into three” counts as their presentation of an “alternative accommodation option.”

It appears that KPR administrators were either entirely ignorant of such a requirement, because their own policy was never updated to reflect it, or that they deliberately avoided updating their policy to reflect this requirement so that they could retain the maximum amount of decision-making power at the administrative rather than committee level. KPR’s website continued to provide only a link to the 2006 guidelines rather than the 2009 guidelines right through the accommodation review process, as if pretending that the new guidelines did not exist, in spite of the fact that the 2009 guidelines themselves specify on page one that Boards must post them on their websites.

So where does this leave us here in Peterborough?

If facilitator Joan Green agrees that the review process was mismanaged, we can hope that KPR will get a new accommodation review policy in line with the one the Ottawa-Carleton board adopted following Green’s investigation of their process in 2005, one that will prevent future Directors of Education from imposing their unilateral decisions on the people who pay for the schools and the administrators’ own six-figure salaries.

But what about the decision to close PCVS itself?

If the Oakville case provides a precedent, we will be in for another long round of negotiations with even less procedural regulation than the original review, and equally open to influence by backroom deals, in an attempt to reach a compromise.

In the next post, we’ll take a trip into a parallel universe, one in which KPR isn’t governed by out-of-town Trustees pumped up with the excitement of spending $20 million public dollars on computer toys, or intoxicated with the power they can wield over Peterborough; one in which KPR isn’t run by inexperienced administrators fascinated by mega-schools and completely uninterested in community input; one in which KPR officials actually paid attention to Ministry of Education guidelines in crafting their accommodation review policy; a universe in which common sense, transparency, and a recognition that he who pays the piper should call the tune were uppermost in the minds of KPR decision-makers.

I know it seems like a stretch of the imagination, but I think we’re collectively capable of envisioning “the ARC that should have been.”

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Playing the Bait-and-Switch in Oakville, part one

It's good to know that we in Peterborough are not alone in suffering the shenanigans of autocratic administrators who think they know what's best for us.

Or is it?

About five years ago, adminstrators at the Halton Board of Education had an idea that they could shutter several elementary schools in the older, pre-sprawl area of southeast Oakville near Lake Ontario all at once and build one “big-box” school in a newer residential area closer to the QEW highway and border of Mississauga, and bus most of southeast Oakville’s elementary students to it.

Likely knowing that this would be an unpopular plan among many residents, the Board struck a huge Accommodation Review Committee, even bigger than the one we had in Peterborough, and gave it the vague mission of coming up with accommodation alternatives for a web of six schools. Predictably, even with 18 working group meetings, the ARC succeeded only in generating frustration and dividing school communities from one another. Then, as at KPR, the Halton Director of Education stepped in at the last minute and imposed the Board’s own plan, giving the public very little notice and no chance to respond.

A petition for administrative review was made, and former Education Minister Dave Cooke, who also reviewed the botched attempt to close an older elementary school in Barrie around the same time, was appointed as facilitator. In his report of November 2008, Cooke wrote that “the lack of an ‘alternative accommodation plan’ from the Board was a significant mistake and a violation of Board policy.” There were other problems with the review as well, Cooke observed, but this one – the failure of Board administrators to be up-front with their preferences and plans, and thereby using the committee as a decoy while wasting thousands of hours of volunteer time – was central.

Dave Cooke, Educational Investigator

The Halton Board had aimed to close Brantwood PS, a 90 year-old JK-5 school in the city’s downtown core with an enrolment of just more than half of its 227-student capacity. They also wanted to close Maple Grove, another JK-5 school in the center of the mature residential area of Oakville, with a heritage designation and hosting more students than its capacity of 300, some of whom were bused from the newer Clearview subdivision in which Board administrators wanted to build a new school. Yet a third JK-5 school, Chisholm, was on the Board’s closure list, though it also was well over its capacity of 230 due to students coming in from Clearview.

The Board also wanted to shut down Linbrook PS, a French Immersion-only grades 1-5 school enroled 50%  beyond its nominal capacity of 236 due to the popularity of French Immersion in the neighbourhood. Linbrook, Chisholm, and Brantwood, Cooke notes, were all built as “walk-to” schools, as was New Central, a small intermediate 6-8 school with fewer than 100 students. Of these four "walk-to" schools, only New Central survives today. Rounding out the group covered in the accommodation review was E.J. James, another 6-8 school offering both English and French streams hosting 500 students, considerably more than its 377 capacity.

The disparities in enrolment in this group are plain to see. Brantwood and New Central were noticeably under-enroled, while the others were all over-enroled, some requiring many portables. Moreover, Clearview-area parents wanted a school of their own. It was clear to everyone that the status quo was not acceptable. The makeup of the Accommodation Review Committee was quite similar to ours here in Peterborough, but the group was even larger because of the six schools involved. The committee was given no clear direction, but was instead told to come up with a variety of options.

The complexity of the puzzle resulted in no less than 72 possible scenarios being proposed. Holding 18 working group meetings, they whittled these down to a few key concepts, including moving to a JK-6 model, reducing the population of E.J.James by making it 7-8, and retaining one French Immersion-only JK-6 school.

Board administrators took these ideas and came back with four practical options, two of which involved building a new school in the Clearview neighbourhood on property already owned by the Board. At long last, committee members voted not build a new school, and to retain five schools of the six, approving two alternative versions of this plan.

However, Board administrators had misinformed the committee regarding how much of the proceeds from the sale of a school could be used to build a new school, telling them that the limit was 50% and failing to inform them when they discovered that, according to Ministry regulations, all the funds would be available.

Moreover, the Director of Education didn’t like the plan the committee had come up with, partly due to his desire to please families from the Clearview. The Director responded with his own plan, which would close two of the six schools. When he presented this to the Trustees, they called for a public meeting to hear feedback, and one was held a month later, on May 20 of 2008.

Just a few weeks later, on June 13, the Director “changed his mind” based on “new information” and proposed the plan he likely wanted all along – closing four of the schools and building a new JK-8 mega-school in Clearview with the proceeds of the sale of the property, while turning E.J. James and Maple Grove into JK-8 models as well, in accordance with the pattern throughout the rest of Oakville, with Maple Grove as French Immersion-only. On July 2, the Trustees approved the scheme with virtually no discussion.

Committee members, school families, and residents were taken aback by the Board’s abrupt decision, which ignored every aspect of the committee’s work and the public's preferences in closing most of the existing schools and completely re-organizing the remaining ones. The Ministry was petitioned, and Cooke was appointed to conduct an administrative review.

In the following post, we'll see what happened next.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Joan Green Comes to Town

Welcome to PCVS Cornerstone, 2012 edition!

The ancient Mayan calendar’s scheduling of the “end of the world” for this year has been re-interpreted by experts as predicting a great evolutionary leap forward.

Here’s hoping that latter reading of the prophecies will hold true for Peterborough, and 2012 not be remembered as the end of the line for the city’s cornerstone, the 180-year-old Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational Institute, but instead the year in which the magical PCVS was not only “saved” but became a role model for other institutions, and community control over public education was reasserted as a result of the current resistance by those who actually pay for, teach at, attend, and send their children to our local schools against the misguided decisions of handful of non-residents pushing Harris-era authoritarianism, conformity, fear of cities, and an unhealthy fetish for technology.

In response to the petition for administrative review of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board’s decision to close PCVS, the Ministry of Education has appointed a facilitator, Joan Green, to investigate the process by which the decision was officially arrived at. Green’s accomplishments as an educator, administrator and theorist are impressive indeed, evidently warranting the “Distinguished Educator” award she received the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

In the early 1990s Green was Director of Education for the gargantuan Toronto District School Board, reportedly the first female to hold the position. She later assumed leadership of the fledgling EQAO office at Queen’s Park. Since then she has been occupied with a wide variety of activities, including advising the Toronto and Ottawa school boards on ways to balance their budgets, promoting literacy through the Learning Through Literacy group and co-authoring books on the subject, and chairing the Board of Directors of an organization called Roots of Empathy, which has successfully implemented social and emotional educational programs in classrooms across Canada and around the world. You can read more about Roots of Empathy in this Toronto Star article from last month. The official line on Green’s professional history and credentials is in the appendix to the letter from the Ministry to the petitioners announcing her appointment.   

This isn’t the first time Green has been hired by the Ministry to review contentious school closures. Last year she investigated a Niagara District decision to close three smaller rural schools and build a single new, larger school on the site of one of them. Green found that the process had followed the letter and spirit of the Board’s policies, and that the petition had largely stemmed from the dissatisfaction of residents of one particular rural area who felt disenfranchised by the decision itself.

The Niagara Board’s accommodation review policy, as evidenced in Green's report on the matter, evidently reflects the Ministry guidelines much more closely than does KPR’s. Many working group commitee meetings and public meetings were held in the review process, the committee was a manageable size, the municipality was consulted on development planning, Board administrators made their preferred option clear, and a proper voting process was held. The Niagara Board’s process gave more attention to a decision affecting hundreds of students in a rural area than KPR gave to a decision affecting thousands of students in what is by far the board’s largest urban area. 

Last year Green also flew up to Kenora to look into another case in which a Board wanted to build a new school and close a number of smaller, older schools. In this case, some of the committee members themselves felt their recommendations were disregarded by the Trustees and administration, and that the Board rushed ahead with a pre-conceived decision – not unlike the case in Peterborough. The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board later agreed to delay the implementation of the closure of the contentious school for a year.

Kenora is a town of 15,000, whose population has been in decline since the year 2000. The schools were collectively operating at 58% capacity, and expected to decline to 36% in ten years. The Keewatin-Patricia board’s policy on accommodation reviews, included in Green's report, is called “very general,” but in spite of its brevity it is actually better thought-out, more detailed, and closer to the Ministry guidelines than KPR’s. The level at which “under-utilization” at Keewatin-Patricia becomes problematic is marked at 50%, a far more rational number than the 85% chosen at KPR, a figure designed to allow virtually any school to be subject to review and closure at the whims of administrators. The accommodation review in Kenora included ten working group meetings and six public meetings. Green found no serious problems with the board’s process, which explicitly set out to reduce system capacity significantly to deal with a declining city population.   

On the surface, the Peterborough review of secondary schools might seem in some ways to resemble the Kenora case. However, the situation here is fact far more complex, in spite of attempts by KPR administrators and some trustees to paint it in highly simplistic terms. Peterborough is five times the size of Kenora and is not experiencing a decline in population, but continues to grow at its historically steady pace. Secondary schools are not equivalent to elementary schools, and accommodation review processes involving them are meant to include their feeder schools and to examine the demographics of their entire catchment area. Moreover, the current levels of enrolment at all the Peterborough secondary schools except TASSS are perfectly acceptable, and TASSS was built mainly to service surrounding rural areas in which the population is actually declining or stagnant, some of which are no longer within the school's catchment area. 

It is clear that KPR’s policy, as revealed in detail in the “Making a Farce out of ARC” series on this blog in November, makes substantially less sense than any other in Ontario, and fails to adhere to either the spirit or the letter of the Ministry guidelines. Green’s job in Peterborough, as repeatedly stated by the Ministry, is not to question the decision to close PCVS itself, but to determine to what extent KPR followed its own policy. Nowhere, however, do Ministry documents state what is to be done in cases in which  a school board’s actual policy is as bad as KPR’s. The accommodation review guidelines simply require that boards develop their own policy in accordance with the guidelines, and post both policy and guidelines on their websites. KPR updated their old Harris-era school closures policies minimally over a period of years, ignoring both the spirit and letter of subsequent Ministry guideline revisions, the most recent version of which was never posted on KPR’s website.

Interestingly, Green was also the facilitator appointed to review a secondary school closure at the Ottawa-Carleton board in 2005, the terrible handling of which stemmed directly from poorly-conceived, out-of-date policy which she criticized in no uncertain terms in her report. As in our current situation, the Ottawa-Carleton board’s approach created an unnecessarily competitive atmosphere pitting one secondary school community against another without providing anything close to the requisite clarity of purpose, functionality of process, or degree of information. The Ottawa-Carleton board undertook a serious overhaul of its policy as a result of Green’s report on the mess that they had made, and now has an exemplary policy and process, as discussed in an earlier blog post. Nevertheless, Green determined that the same school closure decision would have been arrived at even under a proper policy document, and thus did not recommend any action by the Ministry.

Peterborough’s petitioners put together a highly detailed and convincing package criticizing KPR’s policy and procedure in their original letter to the Ministry requesting the appointment of the facilitator, which is available here. This is the list of critiques Green will need to address, and anyone wishing to understand what she’ll be talking about with ARC members, petitioners, Board officials, and individuals from the school communities next week, including a public meeting at the Evinrude Center on Wednesday, January 18th, should read it through carefully. 

One key area of failure by KPR in both policy and process was the absence of a proper Terms of Reference document for the ARC. The general sloppiness of the accommodation review policy led the manipulative forces at the top to disregard the provisions for establishing such Terms of Reference altogether, an omission which effectively made it impossible for the ARC to do its job, thus allowing KPR administrators to simply push through their own agenda.

In this sense, the Peterborough case most closely resembles a case in Oakville in 2008, in which an impossibly large ARC was created and given no clear direction, allowing the Director of Education to impose at the last minute his unilaterally-determined decision to build a massive new mega-school and demolish several venerable, manageably-sized, community-based elementary schools.

Former Education Minister Dave Cooke reviewed this case, which is the only one in recent times in which the facilitator found that a Board had in fact violated its own policy. Cooke’s report led to six months of negotiations and a compromise which satisfied some but not all community members. The report also resulted in the province’s strengthening the language and altering the requirements of its Accommodation Review guidelines in 2009 – the very guidelines of which KPR Trustees and adminstrators have remained ignorant.

In future posts, we’ll look at the Oakville case in some detail, and then take an imaginary adventure through the accommodation review that should have taken place in Peterborough, and probably would have if decision-makers at our school board had not suffered so badly from myopia, been so easily seduced by self-interest and self-importance, and incurred such substantial financial pressures after blowing an astonishing $21 million on an ill-advised technology spending-spree, nearly three times what the province had provided for such a purpose over the same period.

Happy New Era!