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. 

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