Sunday, 29 April 2012

Town Ward subtract PCVS = the only school-free ward in Ontario!

Now that we’ve had a look at a variety of scenarios in other Ontario cities comparable to Peterborough, let’s put the situation of PCVS into perspective.

If KPR administrators and out-of-town trustees have their way, Peterborough will become the only city in Ontario where an entire city ward is home to no regular English-language elementary or secondary schools, in either the public or Catholic systems.

It’s true – Town Ward, Peterborough’s most densely residential ward, with a population of 15,000 people, would be the only city ward in Ontario not to have any regularly accessible schools at all.

How could such a travesty of planning come to pass? There must be some imaginary version of Town Ward that exists in the minds of people who work at Fisher Drive and the out-of-town trustees who rubber stamp their plans – a version bearing little resemblance to reality.

Town Ward’s population density is twice as high as any of Peterborough’s other wards. There are no golf courses, large park lands, industrial areas, sprawling commercial spaces, or major public institutional properties. Except for Peterborough Square and the Market Plaza, every commercial strip in Town Ward is also residential – often right above or right beside businesses and offices. In fact, there’s hardly any area in the entire ward that isn’t residential in some capacity.

The only ward that comes close to Town Ward in residential orientation is Northcrest. With just a few more citizens living in an area twice the size of Town Ward, Northcrest is home to no fewer than four public elementary schools, two Catholic elementary schools, and one public high school with an intermediate wing (Adam Scott).

Town Ward has in recent memory lost Central Public School (beside the police station), King Edward Public School (where the new YMCA is), St. Peter’s Elementary (now residences, just off Reid St. west of downtown) and Sacred Heart near Lansdowne (now Monseigneur-Jamot, a tiny specialized French-Catholic board school).

The only regular English-language school in the ward today is PCVS.

The map below shows the distribution of schools in Peterborough – with PCVS removed. Secondary schools are represented by name, and elementary schools by a small pentagonred for public schools, blue for Catholic. (Crestwood and James Strath are considered to be in Monaghan Ward, though at the moment they remain technically just beyond the city limit.) The city ward map is here.

                         Pub. elem.     Cath. elem.   Pub. sec.    Cath. sec.     Total
Northcrest             4                      2                      1                      0                      7
Monaghan              4                      2                      1                      1                      8
Otonabee                3                      2                      1                      1                      7
Ashburnham       3                      3                      1                      0                      7
Town Ward           0                      0                      1                      0                      1

The only other city wards in all of Ontario with as little as one school are the Trillium and Williamsville wards in Kingston. Both wards have considerably fewer residents than Town Ward – only about 10,000 – and Williamsville is a mere one square kilometer in area, while Trillium is an unusually laid-out ward just north of the penitentiary, divided by a river and large green space.

Sudbury recently saw the Rainbow school board re-invest in the historic, central Sudbury Secondary School, substantially rebuilding the facility with an emphasis on performing arts space, as you can read on With a population of 108,000 divided into twelve wards, each of Sudbury’s wards is home to many fewer people than our own Town Ward – yet each has not just one but several schools.

Even in Sault Ste. Marie, where the absence of public secondary schools from a more than 20 square kilometer area in the center of town has helped create a ghetto famed for prostitution, each of the city’s six wards is home to several schools.

Cities not using the ward system – such as Belleville, Niagara Falls, and Sarnia – if divided up in any rational geographical way into four or five areas roughly the size of Peterborough’s wards would have no fewer than four schools in each.

The planning standard for municipalities is an absolute minimum of one school for 10,000 residents – as indicated by the city of Peterborough’s recent documents indicating potential need for a new elementary school in the planned subdivision south of the 115 bypass near River Road.

The provincial rule of thumb for urban planning is that there should be almost no residences more than one kilometer from a publicly accessible school of some kind.

This is the case in every Ontario city in any way comparable to Peterborough. Even cities which have experienced zero population growth for decades, such as Windsor, Thunder Bay, and Sarnia, maintain this standard. In none of these cities are there any substantial number of residences further than one kilometer from a school.

Belleville, our nearest neighbour, with a population of about 50,000 is only two-thirds the size of Peterborough. Yet if we divide it into west, central, east and north quadrants (the central split by the river, and the north end being the newer neighbourhood close to the 401), each area has at least five schools. No Belleville residence is farther than one kilometer from a school. The city maintains two Catholic high schools and three public – including one, Quinte, right downtown.

Sarnias population has actually declined over the past two decades – at 72,000, it’s now smaller than Peterborough (nearly 80,000). If we divide Sarnia into north-east, north-west, south-east, and south-west quadrants, we find that the one with the fewest schools, the north-west – an area dominated by parkland, a golf course, and a cemetery – still has two public elementary schools, plus one Catholic. The historic, central Sarnia Collegiate remains alive and well.

In Niagara Falls, a city with a population almost exactly the same as Peterborough, only a very few residences in the northwest corner of town are slightly more than one kilometer from a school. The massive, historic Stamford Collegiate remains in operation close to the city's downtown.

If KPR administrators have their way, it won’t be a case of just a few residences in the corner of town. Thousands of central Peterborough residences will be 50% farther than this standard. There will be no regular English-language schools at all in the nearly 13 square kilometer area between Lansdowne and Parkhill, the river and Monaghan Road.

You can either live near a grocery storeor near a school. Close to the riveror close to a school. Near downtown employment and cultureor within walking distance of a school. You won’t be able to have both, if KPR has its way.

The geographical center of Peterborough is the corner of Charlotte and Monaghan. Families living in this neighbourhood will be a minimum of 3 km from the nearest public high schools (Kenner and Adam Scott), and 4 km from TASSS and Crestwood.

Titles Bookstore, the only new-release bookstore downtown, just announced that they’ll be closing, as reported by the Examiner this week. If there’s no high school – or indeed any school of any kind within walking distance – what chance will there be for anyone else to succeed in maintaining a new bookstore downtown?

Welland and Sault Ste. Marie have shown us what will happen if KPR is allowed to close PCVS – an institution built and still paid for by Peterborough citizens. Without any schools in the center of our community, we will join them in the sad parade toward American-style inner-city burnout, while residents in other Ontario cities take pity on us from afar.

How can we thank you, KPR, for this rare opportunity to become an Ontario leader in urban mismanagement?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Talk to the Hand

The bizarre and self-destructive behaviour of trustees and administrators at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board continues to defy exaggeration.

In the past few posts, we’ve seen how misguided school board proposals to close central, historic high schools in other Ontario cities were met with community resistance. In Kitchener-Waterloo in 2003 the school board reversed its decision and kept KCI open. In Brantford in 2007, the school board reversed its decision to move Brantford Collegiate to a suburban location. In Barrie in 2011, the school board postponed the proposed closure of Barrie Central Collegiate while opportunities for partnerships with other educational institutions were pursued.

In the town of Chesley (in Bruce county) in 2011, an unpopular plan to close Chesley High was reversed after the mayor, MPP, and MP spoke out and a community member came up with a novel idea to save it. Just last week in Port Dover (on Lake Erie), the ARC appointed by the Grand Erie school board recommended against the administration’s proposal to close Port Dover Composite School, due to community concerns.

What do we get in Peterborough?

Talk to the hand.

Not satisfied with having provoked ordinary citizens into launching legal action – not satisfied with refusing to include municipal officials in planning discussions – not satisfied with ignoring the city’s official plan and the province’s Places to Grow Act – not satisfied with attempting to deprive their own staff and students of the rights to free speech – this past Monday night KPR trustees showed themselves eager to tarnish their images still further, while stoking the fires of citizens calling for their resignations

The Board meeting got off on the wrong foot as trustees attempted to prevent members of the public from even entering the publicly-funded board room at Fisher Drive to attend the supposedly public meeting. They posted a last-minute notice indicating their refusal to hear any delegations on the subject of PCVS, supposedly because of the legal action currently seeking a court injunction to halt the school’s closure. Anybody could guess that trustees have been instructed not to speak about PCVS while the case is before the courts – but what does this have to do with members of the public who want to address the board? It’s not like trustees have ever seen fit to verbally respond to delegations on the subject in the past anyway.  

When well-spoken student leader Kirsten Bruce attempted to express her well-founded concerns over the disregard KPR officials have shown for the safety of PCVS students who had been previously bullied at other schools or have been recently threatened or taunted, she was interrupted by Board Chair Diane Lloyd, and told to speak to her principal about the problem. Like many of Lloyd’s comments, this one made little sense, and was delivered in the condescending tone parents, students and members of the public have come to expect from her.

The ensuing train wreck of the meeting makes for entertaining viewing, captured here on video for posterity by PCVS student Zan Bilz. The Examiner report on the evening is here.

Not intimidated by Lloyd’s attempts to shut her down, Bruce insisted “I have a right to be heard. It’s not related to the closure, it’s related to my own safety.” Lloyd responded by telling Bruce she had mentioned the word “PCVS” three times already in her speech – as if these venerable initials were now “beyond the pale,” like certain other four-letter words. “We want you to sit down,” Lloyd told Bruce, as if they were in a primary school classroom. She then announced the name of the next speaker on the list – who happened to be Bruce’s mother.

Undaunted, Kirsten continued her presentation, pointing out to trustees the ramifications of KPR’s “divide and conquer” strategy which has fanned the flames of adolescent rivalries between high schools. Before she could finish, trustees ordered Bruce’s microphone to be turned off. Still, she persevered. When Bilz brought her camera to the board room door, the security guard forcibly attempted to prevent her from filming, covering the lens with his hand and telling her that “no video-cameras are allowed” in the board room –  in spite of the obvious fact that video-cameras from CHEX-TV have been routinely permitted.

As Bruce insisted that student safety is fact their responsibility, trustees suddenly adjourned the meeting. “The safety of my friends and my peers is my priority and it should be yours as well,” Bruce told the trustees, who showed their respect for this idea by getting up and slinking out the back door.

The conversion of the KPR board room into a primary classroom was complete, but with the adult-child relationship reversed, when PCVS student leader Collin Chepeka attempted to address Brighton-area trustee Cyndi Dickson and was reportedly met by a hand held up in his face and the comment “this means I’m not listening.”

Strangely, when Dickson ran for the position of trustee in 2010, she pledged that she would “always listen to any question, suggestion, concern or problem, or input that will have an impact on our schools.” 

The chanting of students in the Fisher Drive foyer so disturbed the remaining KPR officials that they threatened to call the police, as you can hear in the video. Educational Decree #49 – no chanting will be allowed on school board (aka “public”) property.
Students found the trustees’ behaviour so inappropriate that it actually made them laugh, as expressed in the video by senior student Wes Collette-Taylor. Indeed, as Plato observed, there is a surprisingly fine line between tragedy and comedy – and it seems that KPR has just crossed it

Former Monaghan Ward city council candidate Rennie Marshall wasn’t as amused by the trustees’ utter lack of diplomatic skills and inability to carry on a public meeting. Marshall had planned a presentation on KPR’s cavalier attitude toward asbestos in their schools. Unimpressed by the farce that the KPR boardroom has become, Marshall proposed meeting with MPP Jeff Leal to demand that the province appoint a supervisor and remove the trustees. “My father did not fight in World War II for this kind of democracy,” said Marshall.

When asked by the Examiner last week to comment on the legal action seeking a court injunction to halt the closure of PCVS, Diane Lloyd continued to maintain that the Peterborough community should simply roll over and accept having our city be steamrolled by people who don’t live here and don’t represent us. 

Worse, Lloyd continues to take a “blame the victim” stance, claiming that the joint student-parent-community resistancenot the forcible disemboweling of their school community by the school board – is what is making life “very difficult for the students.”


Echoing the courageous women who vocally challenged the public acceptability of men forcing themselves on females in the 1980s and 90s, we must ask Ms. Lloyd and her KPR cronies “what part of NO don’t you understand?”

Saturday, 21 April 2012

“Revitalization through Education”: Brantford and Barrie Defend Their Schools

In the past few posts, we’ve seen how school boards in Guelph, Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo chose to maintain their cities’ historic central schools, thereby sustaining healthy communities in the city cores throughout economic ups and downs. We’ve also seen how short-sighted decisions to deprive city centers of their heritage schools in Sault Ste. Marie and Welland made economic downturns more problematic, caused their core communities to disintegrate, and left older residential and commercial areas crime-ridden and depressed for decades, with little sign of improvement.

More recently, the cities of Brantford and Barrie have found their school boards blithely making destructive decisions to close up their historic central high schools for little good reason, apparently heedless of the case studies discussed here.

Six years ago in Brantford, a city home to 90,000 people, the Grand Erie District School Board decided that, instead of rebuilding Brantford Collegiate Institute and Vocational School (BCI) on site, they would close up shop and move the entire student body and staff out to the edge of town into a brand new, suburban version of the same institution. In response to public disgruntlement and complaints about rash decisions and poor judgment on the part of trustees, former Minister of Education David Cook was sent in on a “fact-finding” mission.

Brantford Collegiate, back in the day

Cook found a centrally-located school with a stable, high enrolment and an active alumni association, but a building needing substantial upgrades. Built in 1910, BCI was approaching its hundredth anniversary, and even the new wing built in 1963 needed major work. Basic renovations alone were expected to cost well over $12 million. The school board had for several years been working to secure provincial funding to rebuild the school, and it was clear that the community at large wanted to retain it downtown. A tentative plan was hatched to rebuild the school on site.

But what to do with the students while the old building was torn down and the new one put up? Other school communities weren’t pleased with the prospect of having their schools overcrowded for several years with students from downtown. Moreover, estimated construction costs for redeveloping the existing BCI site had ballooned to $33 million three million over the board’s maximum budget. According to this Wikipedia article, board administrators convinced trustees that it would be a better idea to spend the money building a new facility on a vacant site owned by the city 5 km away on the western edge of town, reducing short-term student disruption and saving $3 million.

In March of 2007, trustees approved the recommendations of administrators to abandon the original redevelopment plan in a closed session, giving the public the impression they were being conspired against.

Students were outraged. Hundreds walked out of school the next day. Nor were city councilors impressed, as the school board’s unilateral decision to move the school promised to undermine years of efforts to set up college and university satellite campuses in the economically-depressed downtown. Once a powerful manufacturing town, Brantford’s economy crashed in the 1980s and 90s, and had only just begun to recover when school board decided to pull out.

Cook concluded his brief report in July 2007 with the reminder that “trustees and boards must be transparent, inclusive and respectful of the community they represent. Board decisions must serve the best interests of the community and of course their students.” He noted that the “value to the community” and “value to the local economy” of BCI should have been given stronger consideration by the board. 

In the fall of the same year, school board officials were persuaded to re-open the discussion. Alumni pledged to raise substantial amounts of money to pay for the school auditorium. A plan was put forth to rebuild the school in stages, with the students agreeing to put up with ongoing construction over a period of four years. Finally, board administrators and trustees agreed to the compromise, including a provision that the original facade of the school facing Brant Avenue be maintained.

Today's rebuilt BCI with brushed-up facade, renovated wings and geothermal heating

As reported by the Brantford Expositor, anticipation grew as the rebuild neared completion. Last year, the new building, including an innovative geothermal system, was finally ready. The story came to a happy ending with the needs of heritage preservation, community integrity, fiscal responsibility and facility standards all met.

Brantford city officials knew better than the school board that educational institutions are the key to urban community health. With a rebuilt BCI and Laurier University, Mohawk College and Nipissing University operating campuses downtown, central Brantford is bouncing back from the days when it was a deserted, crime-ridden, depressing place to be. No wonder Brantford's city slogan is now “Revitalization through Education,” as you can see on their website

The central core of Barrie, by contrast, has been threatened not by economic downturn, but by success. Suburban sprawl due to the city’s proximity to highway 400 has swelled the city’s population from 100,000 to 130,000 over the past decade.

The year before he’d been sent to Brantford, Cook was in Barrie investigating the Simcoe County District School Board’s decision to close King Edward Public School, an old elementary school just south of downtown Barrie that seemed prohibitive to repair. Cook's report found that the board had technically followed the letter of their policy, but criticized board officials for poor communication and for creating the perception of conflicts by having administrators sitting on the ARC. Moreover, Cook reminded everyone that “it is important that boards and city councils work together” to satisfy the needs of both local civic development and the school system.

BCCI - the only remaining public school in central Barrie
Not having apparently paid much attention to Cook’s report, the Simcoe school board next proposed shutting down Barrie Central Collegiate Institute, as documented in this Barrie Examiner article

School board officials argued that the money needed to put into asbestos removal, basic upgrades, and a new heating system was prohibitive, even though the historic school, situated just 1 km from city hall at the west end of the old downtown, was operating at 90% capacity. They wanted to build a new school in the city’s far-flung south end, which looked to be expanding.

If the Simcoe school board administrators are anything like KPR's, they probably thought that Barrie North Collegiate, 2 km uptown (comparable to our own Adam Scott CVI), would suffice as a presence near the city center. But - board administrators had also decided to close their Prince of Wales elementary school, located right beside Barrie Central Collegiate. Having previously taken out King Edward, the board was about to deprive the entire central area of the city at the west end of Lake Simcoe of all public educational services -- ignorantly repeating the mistakes made in Welland and Sault Ste. Marie.

City council got involved, and took a public stance offering to negotiate to find better solutions. Initially the school board was unresponsive, as you can see from this Barrie Examiner article. Under community pressure, the school board finally decided last spring to give BCCI a four-year reprieve to allow for negotiations to find a partner institution to take over some of the space at the BCCI/Prince of Wales site, as reported here. Georgian College expressed a great deal of initial interest in locating a campus on the site.

Now, reports Barrie's federal Green Party candidate Erich Jacoby-Hawkins in his Barrie Examiner column, something seems fishy. In the Simcoe board’s new list of capital priorities is a call for funding for a new downtown secondary school with 400 pupil places. Jacoby-Hawkins notes how odd this is coming from school board administrators who during the ARC meetings argued that schools with a capacity for 1200 students were optimum. He wonders whether it is possible that board staff intentionally made a proposal they knew would be rejected by the Ministry, in order to “resume their original path to closure.” Given the Ministry of Education's fascination with ever-larger mega-schools, such speculation appears amply warranted.

Making the waters murkier still, Jacoby-Hawkins reports, the Simcoe school board’s former Associate Director, Carol McAulay, who left her position in the middle of the accommodation review which aimed to have the school closed, has now turned up as the new Vice-President Administration of Laurentian University, and is in charge of the university’s plan to buy up the BCCI property for use as a satellite campus.

What’s going on with the Simcoe school board? Concerned citizens and city councilors ask themselves – much as we in Peterborough muse about KPR.

 Of all the school boards examined in the past few posts, ours here in Peterborough appears to be the most intransigent and out-of-touch with the economic and social reality of the community it is meant to serve, and the only one to patently refuse to negotiate with that community or its municipal officials. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Better Role Models: Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo

Now that we’ve taken a good hard look down the road to nowhere in the previous posts, let’s peek at some more positive role models for our city.

In 1971, both Peterborough and Guelph were the same size – about 60,000. Both were home to recently incorporated universities, adding new dimensions to their economies based on a mix of agriculture and manufacturing. Since then Guelph has been growing at the rate of 2% per year – twice that of Peterborough. As a result, the population of Guelph has doubled in the forty-year period, and is now about 120,000.

Much of this development has to do with the University of Guelph, located at what was not long ago the south end of the city – the inverse of Trent’s situation at the north end of Peterborough. Because the south end of Guelph is nearest highway 401, and the university has been the city’s primary economic engine, the southward sprawl in the past twenty years has been unstoppable, turning prime farmland into housing tracts and strip malls at a disturbing rate – an ironic effect of the high-power agri-biz sector now associated with the university and its 140-year-old agricultural college.

In spite of the sprawl, which has spoiled many of Ontario’s urban areas, Guelph remains known as one of the most desirable places to live in the province, with a reputation for a high standard of living, low crime rates, and community integrity. The city has managed to respect its heritage while allowing for continued growth, preserving many nineteenth-century stone buildings downtown, including its city hall, and became well-known for resisting the invasion of WalMart, as documented here.

The city’s original high school, Guelph Collegiate and Vocational Institute, has been on its present site in a residential neighbourhood just over one kilometer west of city hall since 1854. The current building dates from 1923. Local authorities over the past century repeatedly opted to expand the facilities to accommodate the city’s growing population. GCVI is fully-enrolled and has developed an excellent reputation.

GCVI is within easy walking distance of the core commercial area and is not separated from it by any major thoroughfares or geographical barriers. The school has been a powerful neighbourhood anchor attracting and retaining educated, middle-class families, who have been motivated to keep their century homes renovated and their properties cultivated. Guelph is perennially a leader in the "Communities in Bloom" initiative, and is one of Ontario’s most beautiful cities to walk through in the spring and summer. 

Aiding in this effort are two older elementary schools. On the walking route from GCVI to the downtown is Central Public School. Instead of demolishing it when it needed repairs in the late 60s, the school board rebuilt it, and it now shares its space with the Continuing Education programs of both the separate and public boards in an innovative partnership. About 1.8 km north is another heritage school, Victory Public. Built in 1918 and expanded in 1953, the school features brass rails, wooden floors and old-fashioned cloakrooms. Its board webpage calls it “the pride of the community.”

Follow the Speed River out of Guelph to where it flows into the Grand, and you’ll find yourself in Cambridge, another mixed manufacturing and agricultural area that has experienced significant expansion in recent decades and is now home to more than 120,000 people. The city was created in 1973 by the amalgamation of the former towns of Galt, Preston and Hespeler. Each of these three small centers had its own secondary school and commercial area. Since the amalgamation, much development has occurred between the old cores and well beyond them. Yet the original high schools of Galt, Hespeler and Preston have been preserved. 

Galt CIVS, established in 1852, was expanded in the early 1960s and again in the late 1980s. Students continue to flock to the heritage building, located on the east bank of the river and joining old downtown Galt to the residential areas just north. Rather than open a massive suburban school to serve baby boomers, the board at the time opted to split the difference, expanding Galt CIVS and building a more moderately-sized school, Southwood, to serve the growing west end.

About 6 km upriver you’ll find Preston High, in the center of old Preston. Built in 1934, the school currently draws many enriched students through its doors and remains highly enrolled. Completing the triangle, about 7 km north-east, across the 401, is Jacob Hespeler Secondary, a newer facility built just a few blocks from historic Hespeler village, another community which has aimed to preserve its heritage, in one instance by encasing its Carnegie-era library in a modern glass structure rather than tearing it down. All three areas have maintained public elementary schools in their cores as well.

Cambridge’s schools are operated by the Waterloo Region District School Board, which also governs schools in Kitchener-Waterloo. In 2003, the board proposed to downsize its facilities by closing both Southwood in Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School – popularly known as KCI (Kitchener Collegiate Institute).

Founded in 1855, KCI has been at its current location right near the border between Kitchener and Waterloo since 1874. Eleven additions have since been made, with the oldest part of the building today dating from 1903 – about the same age as PCVS. In the 1970s, the city of Kitchener designated the front foyer as a heritage structure.

The proposed closures prompted a negative reaction among citizens. According to Wikipedia, “KCI had significant history and a unique culture among secondary schools in Kitchener and Waterloo” due in part to the “wide variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds among its students.” In response to community pressure, the school board re-evaluated their finances and found a way to keep both KCI and Southwood open
KCI - the heart of Kitchener-Waterloo

The current KCI school slogan is “Urban Heritage – Global Learning.” Their website calls KCI “an essential and integral part of Kitchener-Waterloo,” and declares the school’s pride in being a “welcoming and tolerant educational institution representing all the worlds’ people and all the worlds’ abilities.” KCI aims to take a diverse collection of students and turn them into “active, caring, engaged, healthy members of a community in which they feel respected, responsible and safe.” Their goal is for  students, staff and community to become “ONE KCI”.
Elizabeth Ziegler PS

Sound anything like PCVS?

Oh, and their school teams are known as the Raiders. And a former Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, went to school there.

KCI isn’t the only heritage school maintained in the core of the twin cities. Around the corner on the Waterloo side is Elizabeth Ziegler Public School, dating from 1931 and designated a heritage site in 1985. To the east is the elementary school MacKenzie King attended, Suddaby Public School, founded in 1857 with its current building dating from 1922. It was designated a heritage building in 1980.

Waterloo is of course the home of the University of Waterloo, which has helped the area’s economic development immensely. The city’s prosperity in recent years has also been in no small part due to the success of Research in Motion, creators of the Blackberry, whose annual global sales are in the billions of dollars.

Who was the man who helped direct RIM to its stratospheric success? None other than PCVS graduate Jim Balsillie, one of the most successful Canadian entrepreneurs of all time.

Naturally, the university has been a big draw for high-tech companies. But so has the city’s community integrity and attractiveness. With a population of about 100,000, Waterloo has maintained its own walkable “uptown” city center and neighbourhood feeling against both the pressures of suburban sprawl and the bigger “downtown” of adjacent Kitchener, a municipality twice its size. Preserving central heritage schools has been a big part of this effort.

On the other side of the border, Kitchener has battled urban blight proceeding from the downturn of its manufacturing sector with major redevelopment projects. Unlike the situations in Welland and Sault Ste. Marie, these efforts are already succeeding, thanks in no small part to the sensible decision by the Waterloo Region school board to maintain the city’s central heritage high school, KCI.

If only KPR administrators were as enlightened as their Waterloo Region counterparts, Peterborough might have a shot at becoming the next Waterloo, instead of the next Welland

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Want to Make a Ghetto? Sault Ste. Marie Shows Us How

In the previous post, we saw how the depressing state of Welland’s city center foretells what’s planned for Peterborough by KPR. You’ll find no schools of any kind within a half-hour walk of Welland city hall in any direction. The nearest is a tiny public elementary school, Ross Public, 1.5 km north. The next nearest is the Catholic board’s Notre Dame College, a secondary school still on its original site 2 km north-west.

But surely 2 km isn’t all that far away for teenagers to travel, you may protest. Why hasn’t Notre Dame acted as a neighbourhood draw for central Welland?

For one thing, like Ross Public, it’s on the other side of the river from the downtown area. 2 km may not be much for older teens, but most adults and young teens won’t walk that far voluntarily on a regular basis, and having to cross bridges along major thoroughfares on foot isn’t an attractive proposition for anyone.

Moreover, although they receive public funds, Catholic schools don’t actually cater to the general public. They serve that portion of the population who want a specific educational experience for their children consistent with their religious values and family histories. In Ontario, that portion is seldom more than one-third of a city’s population. Catholic schools are thus considerably weaker magnets than public schools.

Most families who send their children to Catholic high schools in Ontario have resigned themselves to busing as the trade-off for getting their preferred specialized education. Because it’s the only Catholic high school in the entire region, the majority of Notre Dame’s 1300 students are bused in each morning, and bused out again at 3 pm. They’re not around the neighbourhood to make friends or put on events after school, and they’re not participating in the downtown financial or cultural economy.

This doesn’t mean that they’re isolated. The built-in Catholic community provides for the school's more geographically diffused families something like what local neighbourhood networks can in theory provide for the more diverse collection of public school families.

But without the neighourhood connections provided by a walkable public high school, it’s easy for both the school experiences of the public system students and the communities they live in to disintegrate – especially if stressed by other economic factors. And once this happens, families who can get out, will get out.

If you thought Welland revealed a frightening future for Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie might be scarier still. Considered large in its northern context, the city is actually home to the same number of people as Peterborough, about 79,000. The population of Sault Ste. Marie doubled during the boom years of the 1960s, maxed out in the 1980s, went into decline as families and young adults left town, and has only recently begun growing again. The city has an unusually high percentage of Catholic families, most of Italian background.

In 1980, just as its population was cresting, Sault Ste. Marie allowed its original high school, Sault Collegiate, to be closed. For the next fifteen years the building housed a French Immersion elementary school – a specialty use appealing more to upper-middle class children bused from suburban areas rather than families in its own neighbourhood. 

Former city landmark and lynchpin Sault Collegiate:
"repurposed," abandoned, then demolished

The closing of Sault Collegiate signaled the decline of the city as a whole. Truly a pivotal institution, it had linked the city’s residential, commercial and industrial areas, and also bridged the working-class neighbourhood to its west with the more middle-class area to the east. After 1980, any students still living near the city’s center had to bus 3.5 km east to Sir James Dunn CVS, built in 1957.

The situation was analogous to what would have occurred in the early 1980s in Peterborough had the school board not been pressured by resistant citizens to reverse their plan to close PCVS and have students from the center of town bused down to Kenner. Given the subsequent history of Sault Ste. Marie, the debt of gratitude we owe those citizens is a substantial one.  

In 2001, just a year shy of what would have been its hundredth anniversary, the historic building was torn down. A nursing home now overlooks the downtown area from the hill on which Sault Collegiate presided for most of the city’s history

While the Sault’s center deteriorated without schools to hold it together, areas north of the TransCanada highway continued to grow, and new schools were built to serve them – making the fringes even more attractive to new homeowners than the center. The city was caught in a vicious circle

Finally, even the old east end around Sir James Dunn didn’t seem to the Algoma District School Board to warrant a local high school. Dunn was recently closed, and its former neighbourhood students are now sent 5 km northwest up around the TransCanada to the new Superior Heights “mega-school.”

According to this Sault Star article, the Algoma School Board spent two years debating the name of the new school, even holding a public vote.

Schools? Who needs 'em!
If only they’d put as much thought into the effects on the city of the school consolidation itself.   

Five km north of city hall, Superior Heights is still closer to the city center than the other two public high schools. The only public school of any kind anywhere near the core is the specialized  Urban Aboriginal School. The closest regular elementary schools are 2.3 km away to the east and west, leaving an astonishing 23 square kilometer swath of the city’s center without any schools at all catering to the general public. 

This bizarre configuration was perhaps justified in the minds of decision-makers by the presence of two Catholic high schools (formerly gender-specific) near one another in the Italian area west of the old Sault Collegiate. However, these schools, St. Basil’s and St. Mary’s, are the only ones in the Catholic board’s huge geographical jurisdiction. Most of their students are bused in from the city’s outer reaches and well beyond. Located 2 km west of city hall, on the other side of the main commercial strip, St. Mary’s gravitational force is a tiny fraction of what would be required to hold the core together - in spite of the relatively high proportion of Catholic families in the city.

The spectacular lack of success achieved by Sault Ste. Marie’s “Downtown Association” in their efforts to convince residents from other areas to “come downtown” is evident in the opening words of their promotional webpage: “Where is Downtown?” 

What is downtown Sault Ste. Marie known for today?


In this Sault Star article from last year, residents and politicians appear shocked and upset by the ever-worsening problem of the sex trade. “The scariest aspect was hearing that children and grandchildren are afraid to visit their families in the neighbourhood because some as young as 10 and 12 years old are being approached and propositioned,” said city councilor Lorena Tridico. The article implies that city officials were taken by surprise at the extent of the problem.

Really? Leave a twenty-three square kilometer chunk of real estate in your city’s core without any public schools, and you’re caught off guard when criminal activity goes out in the open?  

In this Star article from the 2010 municipal election campaign, Tridico and her rival discuss increased by-law enforcement to deal with boarded-up storefronts, stronger police presence to control prostitution, affordable housing projects to attract residents, and negotiations with businesspeople to bring a grocer to the neighbourhood.

No one mentions schools. Looks like the Sault’s going to be in for a long, painful ride.

Having consolidated the city’s five high schools into three, emptied a huge tract of the city’s core of public school services, and installed expensive WiFi systems at every school in the board whether they wanted it or not, the Algoma school board appears to be the role model that KPR administrators have been eagerly following.

It’s safe to say that most Peterborough citizens don’t share their enthusiasm for this trajectory.

If KPR administrators have their way in closing PCVS this year, and either Adam Scott or Kenner five years from now in their quest to bump TASSS enrolment to the level required to entice provincial funding to renovate it, Peterborough will be well on its way to joining our cousins to the north.

We’ll be pouring tax dollars into policing, subsidized housing, and construction projects in a vain effort to stem the tide of vacancies and criminal activity brought on by a deficit of city center schools even worse than that in Sault Ste. Marie, as our local Catholic board has already abandoned Town Ward entirely.

How do you like that outlook, Mayor Bennett?  

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Tragic Tale of Welland foretells the Future of Peterborough

This past Hallowe’en, PCVS students disguised as ghosts sent the message that downtown Peterborough would become a ghost town were the school to be closed, leaving no schools at all anywhere near the city’s center.

Downtown retailers have been supporting PCVS since the accommodation review last spring, many arguing that student business is integral to their operations. But the loss of direct sales would be merely the tip of the iceberg.

Once the school is gone, what reason will there be for anyone with children, or expecting to have children, to buy a house in the area – or even rent an apartment? When demand for housing drops, land-values will drop, and so will home-ownership rates. The only people who will choose to live in central Peterborough will be those just looking for the cheapest possible rental. The downward spiral will be well underway.

Let’s take a look at our potential future as revealed by another small Ontario city that sits at the intersection of a canal system and railway lines, a city whose manufacturing industry has been in decline, a city which once had a beautiful, well-loved public high school right downtown.

Sound like Peterborough? We’re talking about Welland, Ontario. Once a lively, tight-knit community, Welland has for years now been widely known as a place to avoid – particularly its depressing city center.

What went wrong? A series of well-intentioned decisions by various levels of government backfired, culminating in the closing of the historic Welland High School in 1989 – the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Back in Canada’s centennial year, everything was coming up roses for Welland. The city’s population had steadily increased for two decades as industry boomed, and by 1967 had exceeded 40,000. The city had grown up on both sides of the Welland Canal connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario – an important shipping route allowing water transport to bypass the Niagara River and its falls. The city’s downtown core sat at the confluence of a natural waterway, the Welland River, and the canal.

The Welland Canal is busy and commercial, in contrast to the summer-leisure use of the Trent-Severn, however, and the constant ship traffic through the center of the city was causing headaches for residents. Lift-bridges would often be up for ten minutes at a time to allow large ships to pass through. Local officials and canal authorities were in favour of digging a new stretch of canal on the eastern edge of the city, creating a more direct north-south route between Port Colborne on Lake Erie and Port Robinson just north of Welland. With the blessing of the city, the Welland By-Pass project got underway.

At a cost of $188 million, a new canal was dug, and at a cost of $50 million more, railway lines were re-routed. By 1973, the new system was in motion. The new canal went right past Eastdale Secondary School, a public high school built in 1961 on the eastern fringe of the city to accommodate the growing population, which had outstripped the capacity of the city’s original downtown school, Welland High.

Also in 1967, the school board constructed a third public high school, naming it Welland Centennial, this time on the west side, about 3 km northwest of the city’s core.

Just as the new canal opened, the North American economy changed. Welland’s manufacturing industries began to decline. Far from making the city center a nicer place to be, as city authorities had hoped, the re-routing of the canal and rail traffic had the effect of making the downtown irrelevant. Compounding the problem, in 1975, the Seaway Mall was built at the city’s suburban north end, luring retail trade away from the city’s center as well.

Throughout all these changes, Welland High, situated on the peninsula between the Welland River and the old canal route, remained a fixture in the city’s core. The school celebrated its own centennial in 1979.

Welland High - the city's former anchor
Former vice-principal Lou Bowman reflected on the school’s unique “ambiance” in this interview with the Welland Tribune two years back. Bowman called it “one of the classical buildings in Ontario,” and an “anchor” for Welland. He recalled that many students were the second or third-generations of their families to attend, and showed “a lot of respect” for the school. Like PCVS, Welland High was known for its drama club, rowing club, and exceptionally dedicated teaching staff.

Welland’s population held steady through the 70s and 80s, but school enrolment naturally declined across the city as the baby boomers aged. Barely more than twenty years after having built Centennial, the school board decided in 1989 that Welland didn’t need three public secondary schools. With the west and east sides of the city served by newer schools, school board trustees  made the decision that virtually everyone in the community would regret forever.

They pulled the plug on Welland High.

Bowman, who had since transferred to another school, publicly defended Welland High against the school board decision. “I love that school as much as you could love anything,” said Bowman. Teachers and students felt the same. When Welland High students staged a walkout to protest the impending closure, former student and teacher Tracy (Clark) Lessard cheered them on. “As teachers we couldn’t participate,” said Clark to the Tribune last fall, but were “proud of the students protesting.”

While students living in the city’s core were getting bused out to the margins to attend school, the school board proceeded to use the Welland High building for adult education through the 1990s – just as KPR administrators say they plan to do with PCVS. This lasted less than ten years. Then municipal officials and the school board began looking for private developers to take over the site and convert it into something else.

But now they ran into a “Catch-22” resulting from their own poor decisions. The very absence of the downtown high school had created a vacuum in demand for residential and commercial space in the area. Thirteen years went by, and despite public and private efforts, no redevelopment scheme ever got off the ground. The school building remained boarded up and decaying until last June. 

Second-generation Welland High graduate Doug Draper recalls a heartbreaking tour through the empty, tarnished halls three years ago, from which he found that lights, clocks and other fixtures had all been stolen. “Trash was strewn across the floor and there were empty beer cans piled in corners where vandals had broke in at night for a party,” wrote Draper on the Niagara-at-Large independent news site. “There were even Nazi swastikas spray painted on walls where plaques remembering students who sacrificed their lives in World Wars One and Two once hung.”

Last June, just as KPR administrators were wrapping up their abuse of the accommodation review process and readying to foist their destructive decision to close PCVS on the Peterborough public, vandals in Welland started a fire in the decrepit remains of what had once been a beacon of education in the Niagara region.

The blaze was tremendous, requiring every fire-fighter in the region to handle it. You can watch the building burn on this YouTube clip if you go for that sort of thing. Or watch the demolition of the still-smoldering embers here. Or, if you prefer still photos, there are several hundred here.

Both Draper and View magazine compared the conflagration to a “Viking funeral.” View called it “an ignoble, but sadly predictable end to the storied history of the former high school.”  Former principal Bob Muir called it “a tragic ending.” 

Last fall, Welland High alumni gathered for their sad class reunions, reduced to sharing memories and photos from yearbooks. They can buy a brick salvaged from the building’s remnants as a souvenir if they want.

Ever since the closure of Welland High, what has been the primary political issue occupying municipal leaders year in, year out?

You guessed it – the revitalization of the empty downtown core. Massive amounts of public money have been put into a decade-long project of creating a “civic square” near city hall. The new official plan calls for increasing residential density downtown. Yet the center of Welland continues to be dominated by vacant storefronts and seniors’ high-rises. How are they going to increase residential density if there are no schools to attract potential homeowners?

Welland’s present could easily be Peterborough’s future if KPR administrators have their way, and MPP Jeff Leal and Mayor Darryl Bennett continue to do nothing to stop them.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Ontario's Senseless Assault on Urban Schools

In his recent book Peterborough Successes, former MP and Trent University professor Peter Adams stated that “every urban community needs a vibrant, comprehensive inner-city high school.

Bear in mind that Adams spent most of his professional career studying urban geography.

A survey of Ontario cities comparable in size to Peterborough reveals that the ones that remain attractive places to live and work are the ones which have preserved their historic central high schools and maintained elementary schools downtown as well.

The ones which haven’t preserved schools in their cores have seen those cores deteriorate. History shows that without schools to attract new residents, no amount of public money thrown at government initiatives to “revitalize” stagnant urban centers will ever turn them around.

This pattern is so obvious that one would have to be willfully blind not to see it.

So why, with thirty years worth of documented, real-life case studies, are school boards serving Barrie, Orillia, Kingston and Peterborough now obsessed with ripping the hearts out of the cities whose residents they are supposed to serve and whose tax dollars sustain them?  

Why aren’t the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Ministry of Education talking to one another about these impending disasters? Why aren’t Liberal cabinet ministers proposing legislation which recognizes the integral role public schools play in community-building and requires school boards to work hand-in-hand with municipalities?

The new Minister of Municipal Affairs is Don Valley-area MPP Kathleen Wynne – formerly Minister of Education. While overseeing the Ministry of Education, Wynne made no move to restructure the anti-democratic and clearly ineffective system of school board governance in Ontario which gives unaccountable administrators free rein to undermine community integrity with short-sighted decision-making. 

Now that she’s responsible for Municipal Affairs, Wynne is faced with the negative repercussions on Ontario’s smaller urban centers of the loss of downtown schools resulting from her own inaction at her previous post.

How do Ontario’s mayors feel about having their civic development initiatives repeatedly undercut by school board officials, apparently with the blessing of Queen’s Park?

“It has been demonstrated many times over that a vibrant downtown drives economic activity in other commercial districts of a community,” observes an urban development specialist in North Bay in this online document.

What the document doesn’t acknowledge is that the number one determinant of downtown “vitality” is the presence of public schools.

The citizens of Kingston are right now undergoing an assault uncannily similar to the one we are experiencing in Peterborough. Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI), the city’s original high school and one of the only schools in Canada older than PCVS, has been targeted by the Limestone District School Board for closure, in spite of its history, key downtown location, popularity, high enrolment, and the proven track record of its graduates, which include Canadian rock musicians The Tragically Hip.

Like its Peterborough counterpart, KCVI is known for its performing arts, Model United Nations program, and community involvement. Like PCVS, it was the only school in the city until the 1950s, when Queen Elizabeth CVI was built, followed by Loyalist CVI in the 1960s. Like PCVS, KCVI is fully-enrolled and is right downtown, near Queen’s University.

Faced with surplus pupil places at Queen Elizabeth and Loyalist (compare with Adam Scott and TASSS) what does the Limestone Board propose to do? Shut down KCVI, of course – isn’t that just the logical course of action?

KCVI holds the core of Kingston together
At least the Limestone Board came right out and made it clear how much money they thought they could get for the real estate on which KCVI sits – over $5 million. They didn’t try to pretend, as KPR did, that they were dealing with “programming issues.” You can read all about the Kingston accommodation review process here on the Limestone Board website.

Downtown Kingston city councillor Bill Glover, who has a PhD from the University of London, served as a naval officer, and taught history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, immediately saw the folly of the Limestone Board’s drive to close KCVI, and wrote about it on his website.

“Closing KCVI would be a move in direct opposition to the provincial policy statement that requires urban intensification,” writes Glover. Families will not live where there are not schools. The closure of KCVI would be a ‘green light’ for a downtown urban blight.”

Ditto for Peterborough.

Glover refers to a recommendation made by Canadian public policy expert Doug Saunders to the mayor of Antwerp, in Belgium, as to the best way to rejuvenate a decrepit city neighbourhood. Saunders’s answer? Establish a “top-quality secondary school . . . a model institution that will not just bring children back, but make middle-class families from outside compete to get in.”

Hmm . . . sounds like Antwerp needs PCVS, too.

Glover’s observation draws attention to the flip side of school boards’ responses to “declining enrolment” – the unacknowledged extent to which school closures actually create the very phenomenon they claim to be responding to.

Ontario cities near the border have repeatedly succumbed to the same short-sighted approach to urban planning which has left the cores of so many American cities decaying dumping-grounds for the poor and sick. Anyone out there keen to spend time in downtown Welland or Sault Ste. Marie? Only if you want to engage in some shady activity. What do these cities have in common? They allowed their historic downtown public high schools to be closed, years ago.

In contrast, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, and Guelph managed to keep their schools open. Today these cities remain liveable, attractive places from the center to the margins, and their population continues to grow.

Brantford and Barrie were recently forced to defend their own historic, downtown schools from assault by school board trustees who couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Citizens and municipal authorities worked hard to reach innovative agreements to keep the schools open and their city centers alive in the face of economic downturn (in Brantford) and suburban sprawl (in Barrie).

In the next few posts, we’ll look in detail at these various examples of how to maintain a mid-sized Ontario city – and how not to.

We’ll start with our worst nightmareWelland.

Are you paying attention in the back row, Mr. Leal? Mr. McGuinty? Ms. Wynne? This will be on the exam!