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!

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