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.

1 comment:

  1. When elected officials completely ignore the demands from the public they are supposed to serve and when, in this case over 100 thousand dollars is raised by the public to fight against this hidden agenda which is counter to the basic, and well known principals that foster positive development and growth of cities (so well known, in fact, that they are written into the Places to Grow Act)then the simple answer is: we smell a rat. Something really stinks and whatever this agenda is, they sure wanted to push it through here in Peterborough with the closure of PCVS, quite possibly the best public high school in Canada. This decision was so blatantly against the common good which must have been embarrassingly obvious to all who were even remotely paying attention. (Embarassing as we have allowed our public institutions to sink to this level of fighting us rather than representing us) I would go a step further in a description of this agenda as originating or working through the highest level of the Ontario government, who use the school boards as "human shields" as noted. We could also suspect that, with the reorganization of school boards that occurred with the Harris government that this agenda has either been one that has been planned for quite some time, or is being piggy backed into the system now that central control has been achieved. For this agenda to be so against the common good and blatantly opposed to the healthy development of communities, we can suspect that there is substantial personal gain for the politicians that allow this agenda to be promoted, and that there is a flow of money coming through private business interests to grease the wheels of the political machine. There must be incredible profit to be gained by private interests which, no doubt are chomping at the bit to get a more direct hold of education budgets to funnel into their own hands. The push of this agenda, which results in closure of successful schools, like PCVS, and for it to be so coordinated, deceptive, and against the public good demonstrates we have a real battle on our hands. Finally, we just need to look at the U.S.A. to get a glimpse of what is driving this agenda, as so often, as the U.S goes, so goes Canada. Diane Ravitch's blog is a great starting point for a glimpse of what may be coming our way.
    Thanks B. Wood for your astute analysis throughout the PCVS closure fiasco.