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.

1 comment:

  1. Another important aspect that the parents concentrate upon is the ambience and culture of the schools.

    IB Residential School