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.”

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