Tuesday, 29 May 2012

What’s WiFi Got To Do With It?

At last Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting, the democratically-neglected KPR crew, perhaps inspired by Québec Premier Jean Charest, decided to call on local police to enforce their autocratic prohibition of any unannounced delegations and all members of the public from their publicly-funded board room, as reported by the Examiner.

As if “talk to the hand” wasn’t bad enough, now it’s apparently “talk to the gun.”

Charest’s ham-fisted tactics will likely result in his ouster from office later this year. Not so with KPR trustees. Sheltered by Ontario’s own autocratic Liberal government from the need to respond in any way to the public they supposedly serve, they’ll blithely muddle on, mismanaging our schools and our money with impunity for another thirty months, causing as much damage to our community as they can.  

PCVS supporters should be aware that they’re not the only citizens alarmed at KPR’s mismanagement while suffering disrespect by administrators and democratically-neglected trustees.

It’s been a solid year of mistreatment for PCVS supporters, but it’s been even longer for supporters of the Kawartha Safe Technology Initiative, whose motto is “play it safe – plug it in.” 

In implementing WiFi, KPR administrators and trustees took the same approach they did with PCVS: blindsiding the people who pay their salaries, ramming through a pre-determined decision, ignoring public calls for prudence and dialogue, and finally banning concerned citizens from board meetings. 

It’s no coincidence that the KPR trustees behind the WiFi boondoggle are the same ones pushing hardest for PCVS to be closed – Clarington-area representatives Cathy Abraham and Steven Cooke, and Cobourg-area trustee Gordon Gilchrist – while those who voted to keep PCVS open are also the only ones to even acknowledge public concerns over WiFi.

Nor is it coincidence that KPR got aggressive on closing Peterborough secondary schools immediately after implementing a $13 million instructional technology plan that dramatically outstripped available provincial funding for such items. Abraham, in a cheerleading interview with the head of a private educational technology company, admitted in April of 2010 that KPR would have to “make some magic happen during the budget process” in order make the technology plan work.

The truth is that WiFi is the other side of the coin of the proposed PCVS closure.

If KPR didn’t need to free up cash to pay its technology bill, there wouldn’t be an aggressive drive to close schools. If KPR’s focus were on the role of families and communities in education, digital technology wouldn’t be so alluring. And if KPR administrators and trustees had any real concern or understanding of the mental and physical health needs of its students, neither closing PCVS nor implementing pervasive WiFi would have been on the table in the first place.

The legitimate concerns with KPR’s WiFi-based instructional technology plan are threefold: expense, safety, and practical effectiveness. None of the three areas seem to have been adequately analyzed before KPR took the giant leap, as we’ll see over the next few posts.

Just as disturbing as the short-sighted decision to implement an expensive, pervasive WiFi system rather than more economical, point-source options, however, is the repressive manner in which KPR administrators and trustees have attempted to silence dissent – a manner almost identical to the way they’ve treated the public on the PCVS issue.

This month, KSTI members wrote a formal letter to MPP Jeff Leal detailing KPR’s mishandling of the WiFi issue, and requesting that Education Minister Laurel Broten appoint a Supervisor to oversee KPR’s operations.You can read it on their website.

The letter begins by summarizing the issues on which KPR has drawn public ire with their “egregious conduct,” including PCVS, asbestos, the balanced day, and wireless technology.

The letter concludes with a list of qualities that KPR sorely lacks – a list which applies equally to the board’s actions around both PCVS and WiFi – including “due respect for the concerns of the public,” “proper study and forethought,” “financial accountability,” and “concern for the health of its students.”

KSTI members note that KPR administrators forged ahead with implementing pervasive WiFi with little advance notice to parents, and have refused requests to mark where the hidden high-power routers are located within schools. Principals have told school councils that discussion of WiFi is not permitted on the agenda, and told parents not to distribute WiFi information anywhere near school property. Concerned teachers have also been silenced.

When KPR did attempt to appease citizens with a public meeting last year, the agenda was strictly controlled, no members of the public were allowed to present information, and questions asked by parents went unanswered, as reported by the Examiner. One parent’s disgusted response to the farce of a meeting was also printed in the Examiner, accessible here.

In the next post, we’ll look at the issues of expense and practical effectiveness of WiFi in our schools in the context of both the corporate agenda at Queen’s Park’s and the naïveté of KPR trustees and administrators, who apparently believe that they can buy educational excellence in the future by using machines, while disregarding the lessons of the past about how educational success actually works.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Dark Mark Over Queen’s Park

Q: When is an economic downturn “good news?”

A: When big business can use it as an excuse to reduce democratic participation and buy up public property.

“The Dark Arts,” Severus Snape told his pupil Harry in The Half-Blood Prince, “are many, varied, ever-changing and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before.”

J. K. Rowling couldn’t have provided a better metaphor for our current political and economic situation here in Ontario.

The fact is that Ontario’s budget could be balanced without drastic measures if our wealthy citizens – who are numerous – would cease pressuring Dalton McGuinty to act as their “no tax hikes” front man. But why support the working public when you can create conditions for unlimited profiteering by starving governments of tax dollars? The strategy has worked wonders for the upper classes in the U.S. at the expense of everyone else – why not try it here?

Our outmoded “first-past-the-post” system of electing members to our parliament and legislatures has contributed greatly to a steady decline in democratic power across Canada. In enabling political parties to gain a majority of seats in our governing houses without a majority of votes, this system ensures that, paradoxically, the minority usually rules the majority.

It's a simple matter for corporations to manipulate the system so that the governments they control have carte blanche to pass legislation in their interests. The corollary is that it is extremely difficult for smaller, grassroots political parties without corporate backing to gain any seats at all, even if they attract hundreds of thousands of votes across the province or the country. And to top it all off, because the majority of citizens are not actually represented in most so-called “majority” governments, public interest in participating in the electoral system at all is continually declining while the acceptance of authoritarianism increases.

It’s no secret that the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Stephen Harper (the son of an Imperial Oil executive) has been little more than a front for the interests of the oil-and-gas industry. The voters who turned out in suburban Ontario ridings to support Harper last year, giving him the unfettered autocratic reign he desired, were placing their bets on the western oil patch as Canada’s best potential economic driver.

But did they consider the continued erosion of democratic process and the disempowering of Parliament that is part and parcel of Harper’s big business agenda, as demonstrated by the “omnibus” bill currently being rushed through Parliament? This article from the Toronto Star Ottawa bureau chief Les Whittington shows Harper’s assault on democracy in no uncertain terms.

The situation at Queen’s Park is only slightly different. Having already enjoyed eight years of autocratic control, McGuinty’s Liberals, now with a minority of seats in the Legislature, have been forced to share decision-making power with Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats. In principle, this means that a majority of Ontario voters are now actually represented in any vote that passes a bill – for the first time since the power-sharing agreements between Bob Rae’s NDP and David Peterson’s Liberals in the mid-1980s.

But the corporate agenda – not to mention the arrogance bred by the two majority terms – doesn’t just fade away. McGuinty’s stated aim is to lure another NDP or PC member away from his or her seat, and/or to win the Waterloo riding recently vacated by Elizabeth Witmer, and regain his authoritarian power. 

NDP leader Andrea Horwath
Liberal caucus members this week expressed their discontent with the NDP members’ commitment to proper public scrutiny and debate on the Liberal budget bill on which Horwath and McGuinty had earlier struck a deal, as reported here. McGuinty, like Harper, insists that cost-cutting, privatizing, rights-infringing legislation be passed quickly with no debate or changes, using economic uncertainty as a excuse to ignore democratic principles and the law itself. Horwath has responded with her own solution, announced today, as reported by the Globe and Mail.

Meanwhile, Health and Education Ministers Deb Matthews and Laurel Broten continue to treat doctors and teachers with disrespect, to the point of disregarding provincial legislation entirely. Broten has reiterated her desire to further erode democratic control over public schools in the name of saving money by further school board amalgamations – as if the current monstrosities weren’t massive enough. Recent articles in the Star and Peterborough Examiner include wildly inflated estimates of how much money might be saved by such amalgamations – in stark contrast to our own MPP Jeff Leal’s statement that he had “yet to see an amalgamation that actually saved money.”

At Fisher Drive we see the same tactics already evident on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park. One might think that education, like the law and public health, would be an area too fundamentally important to our society to become a mere forum for power-and-money games. But such is not the case.

KPR trustees and administrators have caught the autocracy bug. It has become evident that their primary function is to implement the corporate agenda at Queen’s Park. This includes both the closing of schools and the directing of public money into corporate coffers by the unnecessary purchase of WiFi technology.

It’s obvious that our current crop of trustees is nowhere near competent enough to oversee KPR and its $377 million budget. Misspending millions of dollars, grossly underestimating expenses (as reported in today's Examiner), prohibiting their constituents from speaking at board meetings, provoking legal action, protests, and petitions in the Legislature – all in a day’s work for KPR trustees. 

But even with a brand new crop, we will be left to deal with the corporate agenda at the Ministry of Education, which bizarrely encourages just the kind of behaviour displayed at KPR.

It’s hard to imagine any deviation from the authoritarian trajectory of Ontario’s public education system while political parties firmly in the grip of corporate interests remain in power. And it’s hard to imagine a future where this isn’t the norm until we find a way to relegate our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system to the dustbin of history and join the rest of the civilized world with some form of proportional representation, specifically tailored to Ontario.

Just a few years ago we had a chance to adopt a mixed-member system similar to the one which has allowed Germany to become the world’s leading economy in terms of sustainability and innovation. Such an evolution would have made it much more difficult for big business to regulate the political agenda – which is why the corporate-owned media helped McGuinty’s Liberals spread disinformation and fear when the possibility arose that a referendum on the electoral reforms might actually pass. 

“You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible,” Snape continues in his lecture to Harry. “Your defences must therefore be as flexible and inventive as the Arts you seek to undo.”
Constant Vigilance! the price of democracy

As Mad-Eye Moody reminds us, such defence also requires “constant vigilance!” – a lesson Peterborough citizens have learned only too well.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May; or, "Another Day, Another KPR Boondoggle"

The merry month of May has brought us beautiful, seasonal weather here in Peterborough – perfect for outdoor community events in public parks.

Two such events held last week in central Peterborough focused on local public secondary students and their communities.

PCVS Drummers (photo: Save Our Schools)
The first, on Friday morning, was a largely failed, unimaginative attempt by KPR administrators to get high school students from various schools to mingle with one another at Nicholls Oval, costing taxpayers $14,000.

The second, on Saturday afternoon, was a grassroots initiative by the “Save Local Schools” group in Confederation Square beside PCVS that brought local citizens together to address the Ontario government’s destructive obsession with closing schools, in solidarity with other communities across the province - costing taxpayers nothing, and hoping to save them millions.

KPR administrators, possibly having been told they should organize something for “Education Week” and “Mental Health Week” to justify their sizable publicly-funded salaries, announced in an April 30th press release that “over 1000 Peterborough secondary students will participate” in an event called “Highlight!” supposedly aimed at “expanding positive relationships among students, schools and the community.”

The imperative implicit in the phrase “will participate” was made plain ten days later after only a handful of students returned permission forms allowing them to attend the event. Estimates of the number of PCVS students who returned the forms ranged from 8 to 16, and interest was reportedly little higher elsewhere.

What was KPR’s answer to the lack of enthusiasm for an event unable to elicit interest from justifiably skeptical students? On Wednesday, administrators suddenly decided that permission forms weren’t necessary after all – and that attendance for grade 10 and 11 students would be compulsory. Imagine how teachers trying to cram in curriculum requirements only four weeks before exams felt about that last-minute call.

In this Examiner article, KPR Chair Diane Lloyd insists that nearly 900 students attended – an obviously inflated figure, more than double the count made by the Examiner reporter. An hour before the end of the event, there were observed fewer than 300 students listening to a student jazz band playing “St. James Infirmary Blues” on the Folk Festival stage.

The “featured performer” at Highlight! was Cameron Hughes, a man who gets paid by professional sports teams to get up from his seat and do funny dances and strip-tease routines. If you want see what KPR spent $4500 of your tax dollars on, watch any of Hughes’ videos on YouTube, starting here. Yes, you read that right – $4500 for a “motivational speaker” whose claim to fame is taking his clothes off at hockey games. One student assessed his performance at Highlight! as more obnoxious than motivating. But hey, why pay a qualified classroom teacher for a month when you can hire Cameron Hughes for one hour?

As if Hughes wasn’t enough, KPR also decided to spent over $6000 buying 1200 neon yellow, green and orange t-shirts – about three times as many as were actually needed. Organizers then forced the students who showed up to wear them in a botched attempt to get people from different schools to mingle with one another. The scheme was to distribute the t-shirts randomly, then put the matching colours into “teams” for group shouting activities, hoping to get students from different schools to mingle. But with only three colours, everyone could easily find dozens of people from their own school with the same colour t-shirt to hang with – and they did. Why buy class sets of textbooks when you can buy 1200 matching t-shirts?

In total, KPR spent a staggering $14,000 on the event. Lloyd, now highly experienced in defending terrible KPR decisions, reportedly told the Examiner “it was worth it.”

Another day, another KPR boondoggle. No wonder they can’t afford to keep schools open.

Cutting back on such boondoggles evidently isn’t the direction KPR wants to go. Instead, they’ve now drafted a letter calling for the province to merge KPR with the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Catholic School Board, as reported by the Examiner. If you were the Catholic board, would you want to touch KPR with a ten-foot pole? Didn’t think so. The last few lines of this article confirm this suspicion. 

Meanwhile, PCVS student leaders were busy with other duties. Some were up at Trent doing leadership activities with elementary school students, while Collin Chepeka was being interviewed for CBC’s news program The National. Chepeka echoed the feelings of thousands of Peterborough citizens when he told the National that KPR’s decision to close PCVS continues to “boggle his mind.”

When confronted by the CBC, Lloyd continued to pump out the misleading and simplistic KPR party line, stating that Peterborough has 4000 secondary pupil places and only 3000 students to fill them. Of course, she left Crestwood out of the equation, which if included would make about 4000 students for 5000 places. More importantly, she left out the fact that over 600 of those “empty places” are at one schoolTASSS. Have a peek at the enrolment charts listed on the sidebar of this blog and see for yourself.

Sanity thankfully was restored as the next day the “Save Local Schools” group held their own community-building event across from City Hall that didn’t cost taxpayers a penny. The rally provided good vibes, free entertainment, and information for anyone who wanted to come by of their own volition. Nobody was forced to wear coloured t-shirts, yet, amazingly, people actually introduced themselves to one another, as students, parents, residents, alumni, activists, musicians, and public figures mixed and mingled.

Local doctor Paul Cragg set up a boat-turned-parade-float as a stage on George Street with City Hall in the background, creating a perfect backdrop for a celebration of community, education, and democracy. Longtime Peterborough stalwart and entertainer "Reverend Ken" Ramsden, who lived for many years kitty-corner to PCVS on Aylmer Street, dropped by to tell a tale of a PCVS student protest back in 1919. Ramsden then joined in with Cragg’s trumpet on the PCVS school song as the assembled went on an energetic march down Water Street to Market Hall and back up George Street to the park. 

Bull, Bruce and Chepeka in the front line (photo by Josh Gillis)

Former PCVS principal Shirl Delarue, one of the affiants in the Peterborough Needs PCVS judicial review case, took the stage to inform the community of the state of the legal proceedings. The affiants will be cross-examined in the coming weeks, then lawyers and judges will convene in a Toronto courtroom in the first week of June. Don’t forget that KPR administrators will be spending even more of your tax dollars paying lawyers to defend themselves against charges of incompetence.

Errol Young, a former Toronto school board trustee, spoke of the disturbing situation in Toronto, where the board is being told by Queen’s Park not only to close schools but to sell off the properties. His anecdote about one school which was closed, then later re-opened due to renewed demand for its facilities, showed the folly of selling off public property.

A blog post by one of the Toronto speakers about Saturday’s event features some fantastic photos and a rundown of the day. Another post on the Save Our Schools blog looks into the psychology of power that trustees often become possessed by.

A host of local musicians entertained the assembled over the course of the afternoon, including PCVS students Kirsten Bruce, Evangeline Gentle, and Devlin Flynn, PCVS alumni Candle Cave Ensemble Part II, and a student rock band from TASSS. The Examiner report on the afternoon is here.

Such events are what public parks should be used for – community-building arts and consciousness-raising gatherings, open to all. It’s too bad KPR administrators didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to participate. They might have learned a thing or two about the people they’re supposed to be serving. 

Sadly, we’ve long since ceased expecting KPR managers to show much interest in either learning or community.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dispelling the “Education Premier” Myth

The Save Local Schools group is organizing a rally in Confederation Park beside PCVS this coming Saturday afternoon, May 12.

It will be an opportunity to get together in a public space, enjoy the spring blossoms, share food, music and ideas, and celebrate the community connections that are built around our schools. The event will be in tandem with gatherings held by other communities around the province who have found themselves under assault by the very public institutions that are supposed to serve them – fully sanctioned by the Liberal government at Queen’s Park.

Dalton McGuinty brought his Liberal party to power in 2003 with promises of no tax hikes. He tirelessly promoted himself as the “Education Premier,” taking advantage of the terrible education record of the previous PC government to distinguish himself as such.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Nobody could be worse than Harris when it came to managing Ontario schools – and because Harris was responsible for centralizing educational authority at Queen’s Park, no other Premier prior to Harris ever had so much power to push his educational agenda.

The Ontario government has three main responsibilities: Education, Health, and Energy.

On the Energy front, the Liberals’ record isn’t bad. True, it is full of questionable backroom deals, such as the untendered multi-billion dollar agreement with Samsung, ongoing bad investments in the nuclear industry, and the manipulation of energy projects to suit political purposes (as seen in the cancelling of a gas-fired energy plant in a politically sensitive Mississauga riding). But no one can deny that the air in southern Ontario is cleaner than it was in 2003, now that coal-fired generation has been minimized. Renewable energy projects have gotten off the ground like never before. Time-of-use metering and more realistic electricity pricing have been phased in painlessly.

The Liberal record on Health care management is worse. On the plus side, doctor shortages have eased and emergency wait room times have shortened. However, we’ve also seen controversial public-private partnerships for building hospitals where transparency and accountability go out the window. This same pattern is evident on larger scales, such as the absurd “e-health” fiasco, where a bureaucracy run amok spent massive amounts of tax dollars building its own hard-wired system rather than use the existing Internet – a scheme which failed miserably. That mess happened under the dubious watch of “Furious George” Smitherman, who quit the Liberal cabinet before it could come to light, leaving his Ministerial successors holding the bag. Thank the lord Smitherman didn’t get elected Mayor of Toronto. At least Rob Ford makes his messes right out in the open.

The latest scandal is the ORNGE air ambulances – another initiative put into place under Smitherman’s watch. It’s a sad story that centers on Dr. Chris Mazza, an ambitious man who apparently lost his bearings entirely after suffering a family tragedy, but was nevertheless handed the keys to treasury. Nobody thought to ask for them back until the Toronto Star began investigating the multi-million dollar web of corruption in December. Hearings at Queen’s Park on the farce continue weekly. Read today’s news here.

Now new Health Minister Deb Matthews is trying to cut doctors’ fees. As columnist Thomas Walkom observes in today’s Star, most recent fee hikes were the result of the government’s own initiatives. Matthews – like Education Minister Laurel Broten vis à vis the province’s teachers – is blatantly posturing rather than negotiating, hoping to score her own political points with the general public by taking a hard line against supposedly overpaid doctors. Note that the average doctor earns considerably less than high-level bureaucrats at Queen’s Park – and unlike them has to pay her or his own office expenses out of that salary, while working many more stressful hours.

And the Education file? McGuinty’s managed to elude any real criticism of the mishandling of education that has become the norm at Queen’s Park, while getting plenty of mileage out of caps on elementary class sizes. 

It’s time to dispel the “Education Premier” myth.

As observed in a previous post, the peculiar economic reality of education is that the fewer school-age Ontarians there are, the more tax-paying adults there are, proportionally, to pay for schools. Moreover, a solid one-third of the education budget comes out of property taxes, and real estate in Ontario has been steadily climbing in value as population increases while we attempt to put the brakes on urban sprawl. The combined result is that, on average, educational spending per student has nearly doubled since McGuinty became Premier.

Nearly doubled! you exclaim in disbelief. So why does KPR cry poor on every annual budget summary? Why are school boards across the province in a rush to shut down schools? Why has the Education Minister been trying to circumvent the legislated collective bargaining process to force teachers to accept a pay freeze dictated by Queen’s Park? Why is there a chronic shortage of textbooks, and French Immersion resources? Why do teachers have to buy supplies out of their own pockets?

Add to these questions the ones recently posed by People For Education, who recently determined that the government has been fudging the numbers on Special Needs students to make it seem as though more and more of them are getting help, when in fact less and less are, as reported in this Star article.  Funding increases, yet teacher-student ratios get worse.

Want more examples of bad investments of public dollars? Imagine how much money is spent on standardized EQAO testing of dubious authority and usefulness every year. The $33 million annual budget for the EQAO office doesn’t even begin to take into account the value of the huge amounts of teacher time and energy diverted from their regular contractual duties. Or imagine how much money is spent on special needs technologies that no one knows how to use, or are inappropriate and barely employed.
Or how much is spent on unnecessary WiFi systems and laptops that aren’t maintained and become obsolete within a few years.

Imagine how much money is spent on central administration of school boards. KPR spends a solid $10 million on administration annually. And imagine how much money is wasted on not just duplication but quadruplication of local services, where four different school boards (English Public, French Public, English Catholic, French Catholic) exist in every municipality in Ontario, each forced to serve huge geographical areas because no Ontario premier has had the fortitude to tackle this bizarre scenario left over from the nineteenth-century when schools were run by churches and the province was anything but a multicultural society.

Meanwhile, the massive amalgamated school boards using democratically-neglected trustees as human shields, as established by Harris, remain in place. The Ministry of Education is more obsessed than ever by EQAO statistics, at the expense of the real personal growth of its students. The Ministry continues to push mega-schools, despite the fact that almost everyone prefers smaller schools and the evidence supports their superior effectiveness.

It appears that the Education bureaucracy has forgotten entirely that the constituency they actually serve is familiesnot individual “learning machines” (a.k.a. “students”). The corporate-style management mindset that dominates the Ministry guarantees that students will not be regarded as members of families, or families as members of communities, in any decision-making process.

Like most political myths, McGuinty’s “Education Premier” image is made of nothing but smoke and mirrors. It’s high time he’s given a new moniker. 

The “Smoke-and-Mirrors Premier” might not be a bad start.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

Legal Challenges and Queen's Park Power Games

It's Bealtaine time May Day has come and gone tulips are opening apple trees are in blossom the winter-spring drought is showing signs of abating, with rain falling, and foliage beginning to unfurl.

Are there any signs that the drought of official action on the PCVS front may come to an end as well?

A few weeks ago, a widespread group of concerned citizens were driven by this drought to put up $200,000 of their own cash reserves to seek a court injunction to halt the closure of PCVS in its tracks. A second action, seeking a full judicial review which might nullify the KPR decision, was also in the works.

As reported on the Peterborough Needs PCVS website last week, both sides have agreed to skip the injunction process and put the matter straight to judicial review. The case will likely be heard before the end of the school year.

The question remains, however, as to why the case is being allowed to go even this far.

You’d think that school board officials, when faced with public outrage and legal action, would take the hint. You’d think they’d step back, realize that closing PCVS is a bad idea, and start a new brainstorming session to figure out another way forward.

The Simcoe board changed course on Barrie Central. The Waterloo board changed course on Kitchener Collegiate. The Grand Erie board changed course on Brantford Collegiate.

But KPR? Admit that something’s wrong? Preposterous! Why would they, when they can use our tax dollars to defend their decision in court?

That’s right – members of the public get to pay the legal costs of both sides, while the administrators who made the bad decision continue to take home their six-figure salaries, also at our expense, regardless of the outcome.

Moreover, the judicial review case is essentially one of technicalities. The greater legal question is left untouched. How is it that, in Ontario, unaccountable school board administrators and out-of-town trustees can take it upon themselves to deprive an entire city ward of 15,000 education-tax paying citizens of all regular school services – plainly in contempt of common sense, municipal plans, and provincial policy – while the mayor, city council, our MPP, the Minister of Education, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, and the Premier tell the public that they’re powerless to stop them?

To put the matter more bluntly, why are a group of private citizens forced to spend their own money to protect the public interest?

We’re already paying the salaries and expenses of all those public officials who claim to be powerless to intervene. We’re already paying the salaries of the oblivious school board administrators who started us down this road to nowhere. We’re already paying for the school system itself. Now we have to pay lawyers and court fees in an effort to simply get the school board to recognize the law and the basic rights of the people they serve.

Consider this scenario. If Peterborough city councilors decided to re-zone the PCVS site as “industrial,” for example, and began making moves to decrease residential and commercial density downtown, citizens could appeal to the Ontario Muncipal Board on the grounds that council had contradicted the city’s Official Plan and the province’s Places to Grow Act.

In practice, the OMB is a flawed institution which has become a tool used by deep-pocketed developers to override the public interest. But in principle at least, it exists to ensure that everyone is playing by the rules.

But if a school board makes a decision that flies in the face of municipal and provincial legislation – then what?

Can you file a case with the OMB?  Negative. They don’t hear challenges to school board decisions.

Can you call the provincial Ombudsman? Negative. They’re prohibited from responding to complaints about school boards. The NDP caucus has repeatedly tried to change this, but were overruled by McGuinty.

Can you call the Ministry of Municipal Affairs? Negative. Even though schools are obviously the primary anchors of residential communities, the territorial power-games in the bureaucracy have resulted in a schizophrenic public service whereby schools are entirely the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.

And the Ministry of Education? They send you back to the “locally-elected” trustees. And here’s the crux of the issue.

The Harris government set up our current boards of trustees as “human shields” to deflect criticism from the autocratic, backroom deals at Queen’s Park that actually determine educational policy and practice. McGuinty’s Liberals have only made matters worse, taking full advantage of the Machiavellian system created by Harris to maintain centralized control of our schools behind closed doors.

McGuinty has the authority to change the purview of the Ombudsman’s office. But that would mean opening up his mishandling of public education to independent scrutiny. Why would he want that?

Former PC MPP Elizabeth Witmer
Instead of facing the music, last week McGuinty managed to convince Kitchener-Waterloo MPP Elizabeth Witmer, the education critic for the PC party, to resign the seat she had held for 22 years and take a job as head of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board, as reported by the Toronto Star

A by-election will be held in the next six months. If the Liberal candidate is elected instead of Witmer’s PC replacement, McGuinty will regain a de facto majority in the legislature. He won’t need to make a deal with NDP leader Andrea Horwath to get next year’s budget passed. We'll be back in the hands of the unaccountable majority government which has seen billions of dollars change hands in backroom deals in the Ministries of Energy and Health over the past eight years - usually with dubious results. Read Martin Regg Cohn's commentary on McGuinty’s power games here. 

Witmer was one of the few PC caucus members to command respect from all sides. She was also the only voice at Queen’s Park capable of intelligently criticizing the Liberals on the education file. NDP education critic Peter Tabuns, an energy-and-environment man, doesn’t seem to know the file, and greeted PCVS demonstrators at Queen’s Park in December with rhetorical clichés. 

Witmer claims that her departure was purely a career move and wasn’t politically motivated. McGuinty made a complementary claim in offering her the civil service job, which pays 50% more than her MPP salary. But it’s easy to see why Witmer might be tired of working under unimaginative PC leader Tim Hudak, and discouraged at finding her own caucus members unwilling to support certain sexuality-oriented aspects of the anti-bullying bill she put forth in the legislature last fall.

With Witmer gone, there’s no one left at Queen’s Park to seriously challenge the McGuinty government’s mishandling of Ontario’s school system. 

And that’s just they way they want it.