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!

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