Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Budget deadline tonight

Today is the provincial deadline to file budgets for the 2009-10 school year with the Ministry of Education. As of 3 p.m. today, budgets were still due from:
The ministry was also awaiting word from the Renfrew County District School Board, who met Monday evening.
The Barrie Examiner posted this story Tuesday indicating the Simcoe County District School Boad passed its budget Monday night, and word from the Toronto District School Board is the budget was passed in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. I was unable to find any media hits doing a quick check of the usual suspects, only stories regarding police officers in schools.
I'll update this post Thursday Friday so we know who missed the deadline.

Barrie designates school destined for closure

The Examiner had a followup story on the city council discussion and decision to designate Prince of Wales, a downtown school, as a municipal heritage property.
Some downtown councillors want the school to remain open despite a Simcoe County District School Board decision it is to close at the end of the 2009-10 year. I liked this snippet best:
Toronto lawyer Brad Teichman, representing the Simcoe County District School Board, said there was no basis for putting the century-old school on the heritage registry. He noted there was no staff report explaining the heritage aspects of the building.
"So there has to be some other reason," Teichman said. "I understand the city wants to keep the school open to revitalize the Barrie city centre (downtown area). It's not a rationale for designating the building or placing it on the heritage registry."
Mayor Dave Aspden replied the school was the city's first, built by the town some 125 years ago.
None of which provides much reason, in my opinion, to proceed with this designation NOW. Council has had years to do this, and years to find funding to support it. It's doing it now, after the trustee vote, because it doesn't want the school to close.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What the Hudak win means for education

As most would have heard by now, Tim Hudak (PC--Niagara-Glanbrook) won the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party over the weekend, after members voted the weekend prior to select the replacement for departing leader John Tory. I had previously blogged about the four contenders' education platforms, or lack thereof, in early May.
From his own April posting of his education platform:
Hudak’s plan includes:
  • Enhanced Use of Phonics: Greater emphasis on phonics as a basis for literacy and enhanced training and support for teachers in its use.
  • High School Exit Exams: Work with the Education Quality and Accountability Office to introduce province-wide high school exit exams to provide more information to parents, students and post-secondary institutions.
  • Financial Literacy: Make economic and financial literacy a mandatory part of the high school curriculum.
  • Fair and Accurate Grading: Eliminate unfair pressure on teachers to make sure students pass even if the student is unwilling or unable to complete the work.
What's been more interesting to read since this was posted are the many comments left by supporters on his website. Those include people reminding him of his 2007 campaign support for Tory's disastrous religious-school funding platform and outright asking if he still supports it.
Others call for Ontario to move in the direction of Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, who had the constitution amended and created public-school systems that did away with faith-based school boards. This has led to one English-language and one French-language school system (where appropriate) in those provinces.
Ontario, as most would know, contains four school systems over 72 publicly funded school boards-- English public, English Catholic, French Catholic and French public.
Certainly if Hudak decides to go down that road again in 2011, adding this issue to the ones he listed above, this is the better way to go than the "money for all" approach taken by Tory in 2007. That platform was flawed and would have led to private, faith-based schools getting a per-student grant equal to publicly funded systems, on top of whatever tuition and private alumni support they would continue to receive from families.
Catholic school boards, particularly in regions where Catholics are a minority group, would mount a crusade against a single system if the issue ever seriously reared its head in Ontario. (Full disclosure: I am a Catholic-school graduate) Perhaps it's time to have that conversation.

Barrie city council wades into ARC outcome

The Examiner posted this story Monday about an agenda item at tonight's Barrie city council meeting. As blogged previously, a city councillor there believes the Simcoe County District School Board's decision to close the downtown Prince of Wales school after an accommodation review is a mistake, given the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan.
Council is set to consider designating the school property as a heritage property in its municipal listing, one of the steps towards official designation provincially under the Ontario Heritage Act.
"If a demolition permit is applied for, we will get the information right away," Coun. Andrew Prince, chairman of Heritage Barrie, said of the register. "It will raise a flag."
But Holly Spacek, senior planner for the Simcoe County District School Board, will make a deputation to council tonight opposing the addition of the school to the municipal register.
In a June 18 letter to the city, Spacek said the board also opposes designating the former King Edward school on Bradford Street -- closed a year ago -- as a heritage building.
Both school buildings are more than a century old.
"The school board would oppose such a designation on the grounds that neither school contributes to cultural heritage value," Spacek said in her letter.
There are other downtown Barrie heritage properties mentioned in the article that may be listed as well as part of this council decision. However, given previous comments, council is wading into a tricky issue that will only deepen any rift with the school board. Consider the following:
  • The board's students deserve a modern learning environment that likely cannot be adequately or efficiently provided at a reasonable cost at Prince of Wales.
  • Designation would make it harder to sell the building, unless the school board lucks out and finds a developer willing to take on the cost of renovating an old school into lofts or something similar. Those are harder to find in this economic climate.
  • The longer the property remains on the school board's books the more money is wasted.
  • What's better? New development at the property or a derelict lot once the school closes?
If the intention on the designation is to change the board's plans to close the school, that outcome is unlikely. If council is in a designating mood, it should cough up the dough to support that intention. Regulation without compensation rarely produces the intended outcome.
There are other options here-- through site plan control and other planning matters, council could still preserve the heritage of the building, regardless of who owns it and what ultimately happens at the property.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Goodbye to the pod

St. Catharines turned a routine capital funding / groundbreaking story in Grimsby into a story explaining the death of the 'pod,' an open-concept grouping of classrooms that was all the rage in school construction in the 1960s and early 1970s. It's fun to go around today and find the schools built or expanded in that era that have pods, and what they're being used for today.
In some schools, drywall has been erected to close off the spokes within each pod so that classrooms can have some semblance of individuality. In others, the pods have been turned into libraries, activity rooms or other more open-space uses.
Our Lady of Fatima's 17 new classrooms will have space for 450 students when it opens.
The single-storey school will also have a music room, work stations, full gymnasium and stage -- and not a single open-concept classroom anywhere in the building.
Principal Michael Hendrickse said the students deserve the new school. "It takes a lot of cooperation among the teachers to make sure things get done and get done well," he said about Our Lady of Fatima's eight open classrooms or pods -- a concept popular in the 1960s but eventually criticized for providing too many distractions to students.
The other story that's fun to write is the 'portapak' obit... no more spongy floors, vermin crawling under floors, strange smells and poor ventilation.

School obituaries, round three

As the week comes to an end, a few more school obituaries were published as students wrapped their last few moments in schools closing over the summer.
Orillia's story featured plenty of students reacting to their last days at Mount Slaven Public School. Kudos to reporter Colin McKim-- many reporters aren't comfortable speaking to young teens and children and therefor either avoid it or do a piss-poor job. None of that here.
Grade 8 student Alex Doyle was surprised by feelings of sadness as a crossing guard led him safely across Westmount for the last time.
"I thought I'd be glad to be gone," Doyle said.
But not having the school as a hang out will be strange, he says.
"With my friends, we used to meet up at school and play football and soccer.
Doyle says he'll even miss the gravel playing field.
"It's like my teacher says -- After 10 years of playing on gravel, Mount Slaven kids are the toughest in the city."
My own recent story wasn't too heavy on the kids -- a JK-3 school outside of Woodstock, I was at the school for some four hours over the last two days of school and while there was some melancholy about, most of it was from the adults. It left me wondering whether the kids realized the impact of the changes that are coming this fall.
One parent told me an interesting story during the fun day held Tuesday: Her kids believed the school building was simply going to stop existing when school was done. Bulldozers would show up in the moments after the school bell rang for the last time and the place would be razed. That was somewhat humourous, but a great example of how the eight-year-old mind digests what is happening.
I wasn't as intimately involved in covering the particular accommodation review leading to this closure, but developed connections with many sources over the four-year time line this school kept dealing with the target over its head. (I covered a high school review more consistently-- its closure is pegged for 2010) Wednesday provided some closure for myself as a journalist too. A number of people kept thanking us for our coverage (even with the outcome), yet reporting these 'obits' and last days goes to a fundamental tenet of journalism: to be society's first recorders of history.

Summering in Simcoe

Confirmation of an earlier suspicion of mine regarding Simcoe County District School Board's decision for five high schools in the county's northwest. The Examiner published this Saturday confirming the next meeting on the fate of the schools won't be held until September.
Debbie Clarke, board spokesperson, said although the three-month wait will have some parents reeling, holding off was the best option.
"(The board) had to look at the regular board meeting schedule and also be cognizant of families who will be off on summer holidays," Clarke said.
"We wouldn't be reaching all the families because I'm sure many will be away on vacation, and some board staff will, too.
"But we wanted to announce this date and time as soon as possible, because we understand families are anxious to know what's happening," she added.
There is a regular board meeting scheduled for Aug. 26, but Diane Firman said the board had its reason for choosing not to hold the meeting then.
"We weren't able to get the information out about the meeting through the high schools because now it's summer break, and we wanted to give parents enough notice about the meeting," said Firman, board chairperson.
"That's why we've decided to hold off until September to meet."
Frequent readers here will remember this accommodation review produced a 'status quo' or consensus set of recommendations, asking for all five schools in Midland, Penetanguishene, Elmvale, Stayer and Collingwood to remain open.

Friday, June 26, 2009

More context to DSBN budget woes

Earlier, I blogged about a huge transfer from reserves needed to balance the District School Board of Niagara's 2009-10 budget. That vote left trustees proclaiming every MPP in the district must be contacted to support the board's claims it's underfunded in special education.
First of all, what board doesn't claim it's underfunded in special education? I haven't heard of one claiming it has all the money it needs for this program.
Moving on however, the work by Standard reporter Tiffany Mayer explains how the board feels it's arrived in the shortfall situation, and includes a ministry perspective to balance out that despite declining enrolment, the board's funding across the budget, including in special education, continues to increase.
The ministry knows the plight of the DSBN well and the problems with information it provided the province years ago, ministry spokeswoman Patricia MacNeil said.
She added the board has "indicated" numbers more reflective of their needs but the ministry did its own audit and found "the number of students requiring certain supports were much lower than the board initially thought."
MacNeil said there has also been a shift in how special education is funded, focusing more on improving student outcomes rather then identifying students for funding.
But as the ministry tweaks the funding formula, it disputes that the DSBN ranks so low on the special education funding scale.
"My understanding is they're actually the 11th lowest," MacNeil said, looking at the numbers. "Even trying to compare them to other boards doesn't work.... The funding is intended to meet the actual student populations the board serves and those student populations vary."
Special-education funding for the DSBN has gone up $7 million since 2002-03, she said. The board is also getting a $443,000 increase for September over last year, despite declining enrolment.
"The funding continues to go up," MacNeil said. "The funding continues to be protected from the negative impacts of declining enrolment.... So there's been a lot of work in that one area."
The board claims it's getting stiffed because in the Harris-Eves days, it focused on its neediest students when submitting claims for funding under the former 'intensive support amount' process. Back in that day, boards that could show they had more needy students, and exactly how needy each student was, could receive more funding to support the staffing and materials required to support that student.
Add this to the list for the dog days of summer, given some trustee claims (elsewhere) that special education deficits are a shell game.

Accommodating Simcoe (Muskoka)

The Packet & Times' Nathan Taylor had two articles posted in recent days, both related to accommodation in the Simcoe County school boards.
The first one speaks about the Simcoe County District School Board's intention to undertake a boundary review for its high schools in the City of Orillia. These are natural outcomes, as stated, post-accommodation review. The matters here are complicated due to the SCDSB's difficulties in getting all of its intended capital construction recognized by the folks providing the dollars for that construction at the Ministry of Education.
In the second, the Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board has received its accommodation review report on elementary schools in Orillia, recommending some closure and consolidation / new construction, supported by some capital funding from the ministry (ultimately not enough to cover all costs).
Decisions are also subject to ministry approval.
But the local trustee is not ready to go against the PAC's proposal.
"I would like to follow those recommendations, if at all possible," said Jim Canning, who represents Orillia and the townships of Oro- Medonte, Ramara and Severn.
"(The province) should be able to provide that. There's no use giving this committee the authority to make these recommendations if you're not going to support them."
Well, once again, I would remind folks on the misperception of the role of accommodation review committees. They make recommendations and present options to trustees. Trustees are bound to consider these recommendations, not accept them (as many votes have shown).

Smorgasbord of capital

Just in time to go together with the last-day-of-school coverage, the Ontario Ministry of Education threw a foursome of releases our way about another round of approved capital construction projects. Links to the individual releases:
This list is supplemented by continuing coverage of this round and the ones that preceded it, like this story from Sudbury, mostly focused on reno and retro dollars. A recent comment noted some amazement at where all this money is coming from.
Well, the ministry is financing many of these projects on school boards' behalf. The announcement of millions is actually a commitment from the ministry to debenture the total amount of its commitment on the board's behalf with the province's financing authority. The ministry then forwards the annual payment to boards as part of their budgets (separate from the grants for student needs that fund operations).
This lifecycle-based financing is becoming somewhat more popular in government. Consider it like a mortgage-- many couldn't afford to slap down a full payment when buying or building a house. So you mortgage the full cost over the expected life of the building (or how long you plan to live there). Sure, there are additional financing and carrying costs with a debenture, but you don't shell out everything at the front end. It feeds the perspective that all those who use the building over the expected life span should contribute to its capital costs, not just those who were around when the bricks and mortar were assembled.
Which philosophy is better when it comes to public money?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Another two budgets down

Two more budget stories to add to the mix in these last moments before deadline day on June 30.
  • Lambton-Kent DSB, where the story turned into an exercise in counting dollars. Yet a quarter-billion is not even close to the largest school board budget around.
  • Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic DSB, where 15 EAs were trimmed through attrition. If there was any backlash, it wasn't reported.
Again, next week I'll take a look at those whose budgets are outstanding-- like in Toronto, where they're doing Pepsi renewals and saving pools.

1K visits!

A milestone to celebrate... some time in the past day or so, the blog passed its 1000th visit. Thanks to all those (between 30-50 daily) who come here to read and comment.
This milestone was attained far faster than I had expected when setting up the blog in March.

Let's get frustrated together

Barrie had this story over the County of Simcoe and the Simcoe County District School Board agreeing to work together and approach the Ontario Ministry of Education to request a funding review.
"It (the partnership) doesn't happen often, but when it does, we're certainly always interested in partnerships like this," (board spokesperson Debbie Clarke) said. "The board has come through a very challenging budget this year, and both the county and our board have the same worries about education funding in the county."
Which reminds me about something to look into over the dog days of this summer. An election promise was a complete review of the Education Funding Formula by ... 2010? 2010-11? I can't remember specifically right now.

Principal transfer changes

Had blogged about this earlier, when principal Dina Dalia's transfer from St. John's College in Brantford to Holy Trinity in Simcoe. An update was posted this week, noting Dalia is not transferring schools but rather being shuffled into a desk job at the board office.
(St. John's) Student leader Evan Braund, a friend of Dalia's son Joseph, said students were upset with the treatment of Dalia, who is going into her last year before retirement.
The petition accused the board of "deliberately disregarding Dr. Dalia's dignity" and making a move that would result in "unhappy principals and poorly served school communities."
Tracey Austin, spokesperson for the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board, said the appointment of Dalia to her new post was not related to the controversy.
Still missing from this story, and unknown whether either Brantford or Simcoe media attempted, is Dalia's own perspective-- particularly given the comparison to a principal transfer in Brockville has parental and legal involvement.

My Act is better than your Act: OMB appeal

The Examiner had a story on the nice little pissing match between the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic DSB and the City of Peterborough over a walkway linking St. Peter's Secondary School to the city's Monaghan Road throughfare.
In the first day of an Ontario Municipal Board hearing featured the lawyers for each arguing over the walkway's existence and noting either party could have used the provisions of their Act (Education Act or Municipal Act) to expropriate the property back from the other party.
“The (school) board has the intention of expropriating the land necessary to build this walkway,” (lawyer Bruce Fitzpatrick) said. “Ultimately, we will be the owner of that property.”
City council, earlier this month, asked its staff to acquire a one-foot wide strip of property between the apartment building property at 333 Hedonics Rd. and the school to block the creation of a walkway.
The school board could take the land using powers it has under the provincial Education Act, but the city could take it back using its own powers to take land for public use, said lawyer Gordon Petch, on behalf of the city.
“You can imagine how ridiculous this could become,” he said. “That power is so rarely used because municipalities, expropriating authorities, don’t do this.”
Well, I agree. It's ridiculous this has reached this stage. Two public bodies before a third quasi-judicial public body, all pissing away public dollars over a sidewalk. I disagree with Fitzpatrick's statemton on municipal expropriation-- it happens often enough that it's not "rare."

Almost the last budget post

The clock is ticking for boards to file their budgets for the 2009-10 school year. Those that don't face scrutiny, funding holdbacks, censure and even possible takeover by ministry appointed flacks if they don't vote 'yea' by June 30.
Coverage of school board budgets is spotty at best. The budgets can have a huge impact on the breadth and depth of programs offered in your local school board, but their passage has little direct financial impact on you. The education portion of your property tax hasn't changed in three years, only rising if your overall assessment has risen. You don't fork over cheques to pay for the estimated $9K+/student the public system spends.
However, here are some of the latest articles-- likely not the last as the school year has ended or ends today for most boards, and the deadline is Tuesday.
Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic DSB, the only board in Ontario whose overall grants actually decreased from 2008-09 to 2009-10 due to the loss of some one-time funds.
St. Clair Catholic DSB
Rainbow DSB, with a focus on the impact of declining enrolment.
Next week, when the sheer volume of education news will slow to a trickle, we'll take a look at those boards that have budgets to pass.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Let's all go to the OMB

Fun, my two main reporting beats intersect.
Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake council has maintained its stance in zoning a plot of land targeted for new elementary school in Virgil, zoning it residential. Its committee of adjustment has rejected a severance application from the existing landowner so the board can buy the land. The board has appealed the denied severance to the Ontario Municipal Board. Councillors are openly admitting, implied in commentary, they're stiffing the District School Board of Niagara because of trustees' decision on Niagara District Secondary School.
Coun. Andrea Kaiser said the eight- acre site in Virgil is needed for residential development and pointed out that the NDSS site is already zoned institutional.
“This community was misled and taken down a garden path,” Coun. Gary Zalepa said regarding the process followed by the school board that resulted in a recommendation to close the high school in 2010 if enrolment does not reach 350 students by October this year. The school is about 100 students short.
Councillors Jack Lowrey and Art Viola voted against residential zoning for the proposed new elementary school site.
“We have a chance for an elementary school in Virgil,” Lowrey said. “Are we going to keep making the students in Virgil wait for accommodation?”
The community is speaking out on this one as well-- head on over to the main site to see a snippet of what it is encouraging people to do: tell council to back down and give these students a new school.

Is contracting out "un-Catholic?"

St. Thomas carried this story today regarding the decision of the London District Catholic School Board to contract out custodial services at St. Joseph's High School located in the city. The board already contracts out custodial at several of its London high schools and elementary schools, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees protested those decisions as they did this one.
CUPE was the only group to speak at the board's budget public input meeting, in opposition to the plan to contract out four jobs. The union calls the move un-Catholic, un-Christian, saying its member employees do a better job, care more and implying they're better Catholics as a result.
"All I can say is, in all honesty, there aren't any jobs lost here and I think that's important," said (Elgin trustee Bill) Hall after the meeting.
All four current St. Joe's custodial employees will still have jobs within the board and will be reassigned to other schools.
When asked to comment after the decision was made, Moira Bell, CUPE Local 4186 president said she was too upset to speak with the Times-Journal.
Hall told the Times-Journal it all came down to numbers and helping eradicate the $2.8 million deficit.
"Definitely, for the trustees, those who could vote, it's a money issue," he said.
Contracting out the four positions will save the board a minimum of $50,000 annually, said Tim Holmes, superintendent of business and treasurer, previously to the Times-Journal.
This year's feedback was tame-- I can remember the last contracting out, where CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan came to speak to the board and told them in person (as a good Catholic himself) how un-Catholic they really were.
This one doesn't get me-- if the board's contracted out schools really were sloppier, messier, more uncared for than its union-tended schools, I would imagine its trustees and staff would hear about this over and over. They don't, as far as I know.

Deep into reserves...

The budget stories are also coming fast and furious this week ahead of the June 30 Ontario Ministry of Education deadline for school boards to file. St. Catharines reported Tuesday night on the District School Board of Niagara's over $4-million dip into reserves. Ouch.
That is, to date, the largest amount I have seen a board take from its reserves to balance a 2009-10 budget. About $1.4 million of that came from a special education reserve fund, which is interesting considering the province encouraged boards several years ago through clawbacks to eliminate that specific reserve fund.
“We can go one more year doing what we’re doing tonight and then we’re done,” finance committee chairman Dalton Clark said.
“We need to make an impression on our local MPPs and have them fight for us.”
Board trustees passed a budget of slightly more than $372.79 million.
Clark said the board spends $4.2 million more in special education than it receives from the province. Niagara’s board is the second lowest funded in Ontario when it comes to receiving special education funding, he told board members.
If the board received the provincial average for special education, he said it would get an additional $5.8 million.
Clark said that would allow Niagara District School Board to not only balance the special education budget and balance its regular budget, but have money left over to do more in classrooms.
This is a bit of a misnomer, if you pay attention to what some trustees across the province are talking about. They've been complaining, ever louder this year, that special education "deficits" are somewhat of an accounting shell game -- that revenues for staffing used mostly by special education students and programs are not being credited in special education budget lines while expenses relating to staff time are being allocated to special education. The accounting always leaves special education in deficit.
A topic for a longer post at a later date, perhaps during the upcoming dog days of summer.
All the same, I can't imagine what petitioning MPPs would do-- particularly with leading PC candidate Tim Hudak coming from Niagara Region and having support for special education listed nowhere in his platform.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Presumptive at the Standard-Freeholder

Cornwall's headline on this piece has me scratching my head.
It says "Schools closing," yet is entirely about a new round of accommodation review committees scheduled to begin after classes resume this fall in the Upper Canada District School Board. The reviews come out of the board's now infamous "Boundary 20/20" exercise, possibly the only capital planning initiative that drew the wrath of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
OK, perhaps it's reasonable to assume the reviews would result in school closures. However, the headline also seems to predetermine an outcome.
School closures if necessary but not necessarily school closures, to riff a misquoted Mackenzie King line?
I hope the newspaper's education reporter, if they have a single reporter dedicated to it, and headline writers shore up on things over the summer before the committee begins its work or the headlines will make it always seem like the decision is past.

Parents get behind fight to keep principal

Parents in Brockville are getting behind a principal's opposition to being transferred from Thousand Islands Secondary School in Brockville. The school council is lobbying the board to reverse its decision on Arlie Kirkland's transfer out of the school.
"We're basically making sure we don't leave any stones unturned," said school council co-chairman Gord Eamer of continuing the fight to keep Kirkland at TISS.
The council is arguing both the community outcry in recent weeks, including a mass student walkout, and the Upper Canada District School Board's own Character Always! initiative, which stresses treating all people with integrity and respect, support keeping Kirkland where she is and not forcing her to transfer to another school.
Kirkland indicated in an interview in May she planned to retire next year after the TISS celebration while at the same time concluding her 40-year career in education. The board, meanwhile, posted her transfer to Rideau District High School in Elgin effective this fall.
"That is something they, senior management, should have been aware of and basically when they found out, they should have been able to make the adjustment," said Eamer.
"You've got a senior principal eligible for retirement and you would think they would have that discussion with her before her transfer was announced," Eamer said.
We only heard from Kirkland's lawyer in the first coverage of this, when she launched the lawsuit. I'd still love to hear from the principal herself.

Bluewater budget

Owen Sound sent a correspondent to the Bluewater District School Board meeting this week where trustees passed their budget.
Like everything else these trustees have tried to do since January, the budget was frought with accusations staff were running the show and keeping important information from the board as it moved through the budget.
"I guess we'll take a leap of faith and pass this budget hoping things improve," (John) Chapman said, sharing (Jan) Johnstone's frustration that a three-page explanation about the $190 million budget was prepared and handed out to trustees "within minutes of us approving the budget.
"Obviously this was prepared ahead of time . . ." Chapman said, calling it "presumptive" and adding "it seems to be the way we do business around here."
The board and its constituents still await the outcome of a report from provincial "Mr. Fix-its" sent to help the board deal with accusations of not responding to parental and employee concerns. Two sessions were held in recent weeks mediated by Thames Valley District School Board past-chair Peggy Sattler. One of the issues that has percolated through the process was the discussion on rotary instruction in the intermediate grades, which was partially restored in a decision last week.
There remains just over a year until the next trustee elections.

Obits and new beginnings

As predicted, in this last week of classes there are plenty of articles on the final days of some schools and the pending changes coming to others over the summer months. Here are a few quick picks:
I type this as I sit at a board meeting awaiting the result of a vote to approve millions in capital construction costs for tenders scheduled to close this summer.

Still no decision in Simcoe County

Stress shows on supporters of Elmvale District High School as school trustees go around the table Monday night offering little assurance that the school might be saved. J.T. McVeigh / Sun Media

Barrie had this story Tuesday about the Simcoe County District School Board's continued debate on the future of five of its high schools. This is one for those who would claim trustees simply rubber-stamp the recommendations that come from senior administration. Not in this board and not in this review.

Trustee Brad Saunders said last night reports from other accommodation review committees have been accepted in the past.

"Why wouldn't we show the same respect to members of ARC 'B'. I would encourage trustees to stand up for smaller schools in Simcoe County," he said.

"The board should be active and petition the Ministry of Education to support smaller high schools in our area, " Saunders added.

Trustees noted that excess capacity at the schools is at the heart of the debate and that funding from the ministry is based on enrollment. Student numbers are dropping across the county, although EDHS is at 160 per cent capacity.

Trustee Donna Armstrong suggested a rate increase would be in the works if the ARC 'B' recommendations were adopted.

"If we follow them, we can't maintain all these schools," she said.

I don't know if the board can make this decision over the summer break as the guidelines don't allow any other part of the accommodation review process to happen when students aren't in school.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In conflict?

I rarely blog about my own articles, but here's an exception to the rule.
This issue was brought to my attention by a local school board trustee and its implications are huge. If you wish to read the original ruling on Baillargeon v. Carroll, the link is there.
Essentially, the judge ruled that any trustee whose family works for the board they sit on should remove themselves entirely from budget discussions as there is a pecuniary interest. The trustees' associations jumped on this ruling right away and issued a number of releases to their members clarifying the provincial conflict of interest legislation.
The opinions are divergent however.
Oxford trustee Cliff Roach is impacted by the ruling, given his daughter and son-in-law are both teachers in the Catholic board. He said he's always declared his conflict or interest when staffing or salary and benefit issues are being discussed and voted upon.
"The courts have made it clear it's better to be safe than sorry later on," Roach said. "But I don't have a conflict, outside of (staffing issues)."
At the other end of London, when the Thames Valley District School Board considers its budget for the final time Tuesday, Oxford trustee James Stewart will be chairing the meeting and his peer Graham Hart has similarly declared a conflict. Stewart doesn't expect all three trustees (Peter Jaffe, Terry Roberts, and Hart) whose family members work for the board will remove themselves from voting on the final budget.
Hart said he would, just to be on the safe side, as his daughter is a teacher in the board.
"I will sit in the audience tonight (Tuesday) and next Tuesday, I will declare a conflict and not vote on the budget," Hart said, explaining he has been working behind the scenes to ensure the cuts that could impact Oxford's students are receiving the same attention as others.
Interestingly, TVDSB London trustee Terry Roberts did not declare a conflict on June 16. Peter Jaffe was absent. Hart sat in the audience as promised.
Tonight, one of the Catholic trustees was absent, the other three declared their conflicts during the appropriate time on the agenda. I'll update later to see if they also abstained from voting.
UPDATE: The Catholic trustees in conflict did not vote. At the public board, Hart and Jaffe declared a conflict and didn't vote. Roberts actually moved the adoption of the minutes, without declaring any conflict.
The impact of this decision is even bigger for some boards, where I'm sure the majority of trustees have family working in the very system they help govern.
It's also a pertinent case for municipal councils, but I'll blog about that elsewhere.

Please call it 'the Jungle'

The Sarnia Observer reported Monday on what promises to be a heated decision on the name of a new school by the Lambton-Kent board. The new school is a consolidation of Devine Street and Johnston Memorial schools.
Johnston Memorial is the frontrunner in community voting, followed by Devine Street. Other suggestions include Devonston, JD Memorial, Trekkie Memorial and The Jungle.
“The name controversy has created a bit of heartache between the two communities,” said Jim McCabe, a member of a school historical committee. “There are a couple of Devine Street school parents that want a fresh start.”
McCabe wants to stick with the Johnston Memorial name. So does trustee Paul Millman.
“I’ve lived in this area all my life and feel that the overwhelming support of the community, the school, and the city at large is to retain the same name,” said Millman, who attended Johnston Memorial.
Other boards avoid this potential snake pit by setting up school naming so that the former names of the sending/closing schools cannot be the name of the new school, verbatim. The new school name could incorporate elements of the old schools' names, but not simply transplant. What with the whole 'moving ahead,' and 'community building' elements and all that.
My vote?
The Jungle.
I have no idea why it was suggested, but could you imagine attending "The Jungle" public school? Maybe Guns & Roses could play their assemblies and graduations.

Boundary hopping killed

The Free Press' Kelly Pedro had a story over the weekend, published in print Monday (with an awesome photo by Derek Ruttan), regarding a clamping down on out-of-area students by the Thames Valley District School Board.
The primary class size cap is the main reason for the clampdown on out-of-area students, particularly in the JK-3 classes. The board has no flexibility when it comes to its primary ratios, as most of its leeway for classes over 20 is used due to facility issues (ie: no room to create a second class or add a portable).
(Angela) Forster said she's disheartened by the board's decision.
"Kids should not be forced away from what they know," she said. "They're getting kicked out of school not because they did anything wrong, but because someone who never met them made a financial decision."
This story has been coming down the pipe for several years now, since the primary class size initiative reached full implementation two years ago. At the time, the Ministry of Education told boards they could not exceed their board cap-- 90 per cent of JK-3 at 20, with only 10 per cent allowed over 20 but still under 23. If a school received a late registration in the fall, it could bump the student to the next nearest school with space available, or bump an existing student out.
So while the parents here are claiming their kids are suffering as a result of full enforcement of an existing board policy, would it be any better to tell a neighbourhood (within attendance boundaries) family their seven-year-old can't attend the school because two spots are being taken by out-of-area students? I would flip a lid if that ever happened to me.
Unfortunately, Forster's child will have to deal with change this fall because she took a chance and, on exemption, registered her child in the school she wanted, not her own neighbourhood school.

Growth plan collides with ARC

The Barrie Examiner posted this story Monday about the Simcoe County District School Board's decision to close Prince of Wales school in the urban core of Canada's fastest growing city. Some city councillors are upset the board is neglecting the needs of the city's downtown at the same time the province is telling Simcoe County and more specifically the City of Barrie how it wants to focus growth in the area instead of continuing urban sprawl ad naseum.
"Asking the province for special funding may be a long shot, but I'm hopeful that these ministries will back up their focus on downtown Barrie with an investment in schools," (city Coun. Jeff) Lehman said.
"We are not asking the province to overturn the board decision, but to provide new, directed funding, given that Prince of Wales is the one and only elementary school in a provincial urban growth centre within Simcoe County."
Lehman said the new growth allocations in Simcoe Area: A Vision for Growth make all the board's previous planning work out of date.
"They need to re-examine all the numbers before they proceed to close any schools, because everything just changed," he said, adding the school is vital to that area of Barrie.
It's an interesting idea, but I quibble with one point. This school is not the only elementary school in the province's preferred growth centre in the county. Barrie's urban borders do extend beyond this neighbourhood and there are plenty more schools within its borders.
The request to halt the closure until the new study's numbers are incorporated is a stalling tactic. The Greater Golden Horseshoe growth plan itself is almost five years old and the board (and city) have know the province's intensification target for the area for some time.
Again, intensification and new residential development do not always equal stable populations of school-aged children. Those that do add children to the area likely want those kids to attend the best facilities possible.

More budget woes / passages

Three budget stories and three different solutions to arrive at the balanced budget for 2009-10's school year. In Kingston, both English-language boards dipped into reserves to balance budgets, drawing commentary such as this:
"We won't be able to do it again next year unless there is some miracle and we have more money put into the reserve fund," said trustee Helen Chadwick, chairwoman of the public board's budget committee.
"The hardest decision always is to transfer from a reserve fund ... that's really when the concerns come in."
The use of reserve funds was the result of a $1.5-million drop in government funding -- partly due to declining enrolment ($600,000) and largely due to a steep cut in grants for classroom materials and professional development for staff ($900,000).
Both local boards here are dipping into reserves as well to balance their budget with minimal changes in staffing or program. However, long gone are the days when the province would allow boards to keep large non-restricted reserves... now boards are being encouraged to spend to their grants.
Huron-Superior Catholic DSB provides the next example thanks to Sault This Week, noting the board balanced its budget without the use of reserves and only needing to declare 2.5 teaching positions redundant through the budget process.
Lastly, in Toronto a group of parents rallied around MPP offices to lobby for the protection of the Arrowsmith program at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
The vocal group picketed outside the empty west-end offices of Laura Albanese, Michael Colle and Tony Ruprecht, who were not available to meet with the group.
"These MPPs are the most vulnerable to lose their seat in an election," parent Clint Harder said.
"We are seeking their support or we will work against them on election day."
The MPPs are being asked to lobby Education Minister Kathleen Wynne to keep the program alive, he said.
Of course, they're picketing MPP offices because the TCDSB is still under provincial supervision, and there's no local board of trustees making financial decisions.

Specialist high-skills

Peterborough ran this story Saturday about the expansion of high-skills majors at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board's schools. This follows recent CBC Radio coverage of other high-skills major programs last week, which is memory serves focused on a high school in Napanee.
For the uninitiated, specialist high-skills majors (SHSM) are about four years old and were developed as one of six student-success programs aimed at those students looking for more practical experiences as part of their high school careers.
Rob Andrews, superintendent of education for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, said the specialist high skills major programs (SHSM) are allowing students to focus on their passions and prepare for their career while in high school.
“These programs are preparing kids for college, an apprenticeship, university or work right after high school,” he said. “They are really amazing.”
It's a program that recognizes that not every student learns best through traditional (or even more modern) classroom-based teaching methods. It feeds those people who are kinesthetic and experience-based learners, not the ones like yours truly who are far more visual and auditory learners and are well-suited in classroom settings.
The SHSMs' expansion feeds well into an earlier conversation on this blog about credit integrity, and continuing commentary about the value of high school credits in an environment where some feel students aren't allowed to ever fail a high school credit. Some times, that conversation is premised on an assumption that a classroom is the best and only place for people to learn and earn credits.
It's not-- and the SHSMs and other 'experiential' programs are hopefully proving it.

It happens to them too...

Peterborough and Lindsay moved this story initially Friday, posting a fuller print version of the story Saturday on a small private school closing in the area.
"The economic downturn, right across Canada, has hit schools pretty hard," (school head Andrew Wallace) said.
"The bottom line for us is our enrolment projections, and the enrolment commitment from families that has decline to the point where we won't be viable for next year."
In May, Wallace said 70 students expressed interest in attending BHS in the fall.
"Because of the economy, people weren't ready to commit when we needed them to commit," Wallace said. "People just want to wait until the last minute to make a decision about independent schools.
"So we had to make the decision to close the school."
Wallace would not say how many students decided not to enroll for next year.
This year, there were 44 students at the school, he said.
The maximum number of students the school can have is 90, he said, adding that he did not know what the average enrolment number is.
This is interesting. I'm sure private schools open and close regularly since their economics are entirely different than a publicly funded system with a more stable source of revenue. Could this also be a 'kudos' to the publicly funded system, with parents expressing interest in private but ultimately choosing public? It's also interesting to note the numbers involved.

School obituary, round two...

In the coming week there are sure to be many school obituaries written for those schools that will usher their students to the doors, onto buses, etc. for the last time. North Bay had a story posted over the weekend regarding the pending conversion of Centennial, and English-track school which is becoming a French immersion school in the fall. As such, its last graduating class hit the prom, the last the school in its current form would hold-- particularly since its K-5s are moving to other schools and its Grade 7 and ups are moving to high school in the board's first 7-12 facility.
"I guess we kind of feel cheated," Anna (Mroczkowski, Grade 7) said. I am excited to go over to Chippewa (high school) this year, but I think we're going to miss things that Grade 8 students are supposed to experience because we're already attending a high school."
It's unfortunate she feels this way-- the school should have celebrated all its graduates who were moving on to high school in the fall, and prom should have been for Grade 6, 7 and 8 students instead of the traditional outing just for Grade 8s.
There's no reason why some of these Grade 8 grad traditions cannot follow the younger students to their new schools either. Only those obsessed with tradition and unwilling to adapt to change will continue to think they're "missing out" on anything at all.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Clegg responds to Sarnia letters

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president David Clegg (or his typists) responded to a series of letters in the Sarnia Observer critical of the Lambton-Kent district board and ETFO local's squabbles over a provincially agreed upon five-day schedule.
Sarnia covered the change in the past, but Belleville posted a recent synopsis this weekend.
Clegg writes:
Earlier in year, during our contract negotiations, the Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne presented the Ontario Public School Boards' Association and ETFO with a non-negotiable provincial framework agreement that contained a clause mandating the five-day cycle, a requirement that ignited the local controversy. OPSBA, on behalf of the Lambton Kent District School Board Trustees, readily signed Minister Wynne's proposal. Eventually ETFO, having protested the nature and substance of such a nonnegotiable offer, also signed.
Oh, wah wah. What Clegg's letter neglects to mention is that it was ETFO's own decision (along with other provincial unions) to walk away from the provincial table last summer when it balked at the boards' position on who would control additional prep time and varying interpretations of Ontario regulations on supervision time. At the time, ETFO had a list of its own demands that would make every red-blooded Ontarian in the province want to become an elementary teacher (my favourite was 100% top-up for 52 weeks on parental benefits). One by one, the other employee groups realized they belonged at a bargaining table and came back to settle their deals. ETFO remained defiant, and in the process created the reality that its members will now lose salary parity with secondary teachers.
Wynne got involved when the possibility of a strike became too great to ignore. Call it bad-faith bargaining or what you will, but her "take it or leave it" February framework brought the two sides back together after a failed attempt, gave their heads a collective shake and got the ball rolling on settling elementary contracts.
Clegg's sour grapes over how he and his executive bungled this round of talks for their membership shouldn't be forgotten, no matter how he paints it in the pages of your local newspaper.

St. Thomas portables

The Times-Journal posted a story Saturday regarding the city's failure to act on allowing the installation of two portables at the brand-spanking-new Mitch Hepburn Public School, which opened to students in October.
First, this sort of growth is not unexpected-- proper planning of new schools and expansions could still mean portables over the short term, to accommodate a bulge in student population after the new / renewed facility opens. However, if there are still portables there in five years, then that's a sign the school should have been built larger to begin with.
The city's need to control portable placement is mind-boggling.
The piece also provides a brief synopsis of the outstanding amount of change in facilities taking place in the City of St. Thomas. Long neglected by its predecessor boards, it's been up to the London District Catholic and Thames Valley District school boards to finally bring students the modern, safe, up-to-date facilities they deserve some 10 years after amalgamation. It showed how much the old boards, too hampered by a lack of rich industrial and commercial tax assessment or too gun-shy to raise the levy, took that out on their facilities.
Mitch Hepburn was the TV board's first new school in its 10-year existence. Once the new John Wise, the refurb'ed Pierre Elliott Trudeau French Immersion (currently Homedale) and the new St. Anne's are all open in the coming year, a sizable portion of the local student population will be in the most modern schools available today. The boards and the community of St. Thomas should be commended for their patience.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Resist the urge, DSBN.

The Standard posted a story by Tiffany Mayer on the District School Board of Niagara's enrolment planning musings. The board is considering spending money to hire Watson & Associates Economists Ltd.
The company the board has in mind, C.N. Watson (sic), would look at enrolment and facility use board wide in elementary and secondary schools and come up with a plan for the board to get the most out of their schools, said Linda Kartasinski, the board’s superintendent of planning.
The company would consider all the board’s information, demographics of individual municipalities, housing in areas near schools and similar information to come up with its report, Kartasinski said.
“The perspective of the planning department is we don’t have the capacity to do this kind of a detailed report,” she said. “With declining enrolment, every year gets a little bit tougher. It would be better if we had a better picture to start with.”
Ugh. No. Don't do it.
This firm charged a southwestern Ontario board a staggering amount to provide information it could have obtained from entering into a dialogue with its local municipalities. Its legwork in some areas of the district amounted to a grand total of one phone call and downloading a report that was publicly available on the county website.
Watson's specialty is school-aged demographics, which not every municipal planner is good at ("Houses? Oh, that must equal kids.") People, including some times municipal planners, politicians and staff, see new housing and they automatically think skyrocketing enrolment. Well, take a closer look at the kind of housing being built and the demographics of those who are childbearing and taking advantage of it. Good planners and demographers know housing does not necessarily mean a stable population of school-aged children in this era of shrinking birth and fertility rates. Our population growth is driven more by population shift than me getting hitched and having lots and lots of kids.
Niagara Region must employ some decent planners, I would think. Given the district board's boundaries are the same as the region's, it only makes sense the school board should partner / collaborate / etc. with the regional government in its planning. DSBN should also have its own in-house capital planning experts, who know exactly to what extent every school is being used since it has to submit these figures (and forecasts) to the Ministry of Education annually.
Why do I say the board should avoid Watson? Well, the first call Watson's going to make is to the region's planning department to ask it for all its growth forecasts.
I have nothing against Watson and its staff, but the board should save its money and time, and invite its local planner for coffee instead.
At one point, Watson also charged $190/hour for some of its staff members' time. Ouch.

SCDSB to consult on capital priorities

Orillia's Nathan Taylor with a nice follow-up story to the coverage of this week's board meeting where trustees learned their capital planning needs some work. None of the board's reviews were given a tip of the hat by the Ministry of Education's smorgasbord of recent capital funding announcements.
So, trustees are asking their constituents.
Isn't this was the accommodation review committee processes were all about? The high school on in Orillia was able to see the facility needs and how that affected program in its recommendations. The 'northwest' review, not so much.
This just looks like it will provide too much fodder for a public display where one end of Simcoe County craps on the other end's needs, and vice versa.

North Simcoe ARC update #3

The accommodation review of five high schools in 'northwest' Simcoe hasn't yet come to a conclusion. Simcoe County District School Board trustees were scheduled to tackle their decision on the review this week, but didn't get to a final vote before having to bring their meeting to an end. The matter has been put over to Monday, June 22.
This review committee's report veered towards the 'status quo' or 'concensus' recommedations since it couldn't agree to any recommendation that would close any of the existing schools.

Orillia ARC decisions

The Packet & Times keeps up with the developments at the Simcoe County District School Board as it reaches its summer break and some key decisions on some accommodation reviews that are coming to a close. Reporter Nathan Taylor first moved a shorter story Wednesday night, a longer one that was up until some point Thursday (no live link remains) and then the final press version was posted later on Thursday.
The local ARC, made up of volunteer members representing high schools, businesses and the city, began to review Orillia’s three public secondary schools more than a year ago. Well into the process, there was a “fine tuning of what government priorities are,” given the economic decline, said Carol McAulay, the board’s superintendent of business and information technology services.
The province wants to ensure school boards are shedding excess space before approving the creation of new ones. That’s not a revelation, but it is a position that’s “more pronounced than it was before,” said Lou Brandes, associate director and superintendent of facility services.
The province likely views the local ARC recommendations — closing Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute and Park Street Collegiate Institute, and building a new school — as “non-urgent” capital projects, McAulay said. Non-urgent projects are to be put on hold.
The two schools are aging, but have been well maintained, she noted.
Trustees are now concerned the ARC, following a government-created consultation process, might have been misled.
This piece is helpful to explain the way Ontario is funding new school construction (and some changes heading down the pipe in Bill 177). First, some brief history.
In the Gerard Kennedy days, he asked boards to complete five-year capital plans, committing to personally reviewing them himself. Boards hired consultants, scrounged, public inputted and furrowed their brows for a year working on the plans, which remained on Kennedy's desk when he left to seek other entertainment at the federal level.
It was during Sandra Pupatello's tenure, whose stint at the MinEd was relatively short-lived, that boards were told the minister would not be reviewing the plans, but that the ministry would keep the information and use it to determine priority funding for capital projects.
Fast-forward a bit and the ministry developed a 'capital liquidity template' for boards to develop and submit for all new school, reno and expansion projects. Why?
All of this construction is being financed by the province on 25-year terms. The ministry approves the projects and then each year forwards the board money to cover the financing (most if not all of which is actually financed with the province, so it's all pretty much internal). The ministry wants to make sure the boards have the student base to support the cost of financing the new construction, since it's coughing up all the dough.
"Non-urgent" projects will be put off until the current cash crunch is over, so the ministry, province and, sort of by relation, boards, don't overburden their debt loads.
Bill 177 would further change these areas, introducing new rules for how boards can issue debt.

As to the ARC's recommendations and trustee decision? It's unfortunate they thought this vote would bring an immediate winfall. The lack of immediate funds doesn't change the overall reasons and need for completing the review.

Busing consortium RFPs, cont'd

The papers that brought this issue to light originally are now staking an editorial position on it. Two papers in Belleville and Trenton have slightly reworked versions of the same opinion piece regarding the move to have the busing consortia RFP/tender bus routes.
From the Trentonian piece:
Craig Smith, owner of Smith Bus Lines, said if operators don’t get backing from local municipal councils and residents, 80 of his employees will be on the unemployment lines.
Most local operators have one contract, said Vaughn Richmond, of Richmond’s School Coach in Belleville.
“Most of our eggs are in one basket. Our businesses are tailored for one customer,’’ he said. “The Ministry of Education is being extremely shortsighted. They won’t look far enough down the road to see what’s going to happen.’’
Local operators say they can’t step in and submit a bid for 100 routes like the big players.
“We don’t have that kind of leverage,’’ said Richmond.
This is an interesting one to keep an eye on. The mayor pledged to meet with Kathleen Wynne at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa at the end of August to discuss it. Other smaller bus operators should be keeping their ear to the ground on this one as well.

Choppa choppa

Partly in response to a comment from the other day on how most boards are passing balanced budgets without staffing cuts, the Huron-Superior Catholic board isn't, as reported in the Sault Star's Thursday edition.
Anna Allard, an educational assistant with 20 years seniority whose job looks to have been cut, questioned the rationale behind the cuts.
"I think it kind of blindsided us," said Allard, a member of CUPE Local 4148.
Allard said she sees "big time," safety concerns with the removal of assistants from large junior kindergarten classrooms which often include children who are three years old.
Stadnyk said the decision to cut the assistants was made with the assistance of an outside consultant, hired to assist in the budget process.
"It wasn't just a heartless attack on that expenditure, it was trying to look at all of our expenditures and make sure we have the essentials in terms of the classrooms," said Stadnyk. He said it is possible the board will revisit the decision, but he pointed out H-SCDSB is one of probably two boards in the province that still has early years educational assistants.
The EA's statement confuses me. In this board particularly, there should be no challenge with the JK-3 primary class size cap. If anything, most cohorts are naturally small enough that fewer than 20 children are registering in JK/SK anyway. The largest the class could get is 23, but most if not all, I would say, are under 20. The Ministry of Education's own class-size tracker reports they are compliant with the regulation (you may have to select the board after clicking through). These are the same sort of EA positions that have come under the gun at the Toronto boards in recent years, which is probably the other board referred to in the article.
These positions are no longer funded under the 'grants for student needs' and as such should be seen as gravy compared to those boards who staff and program as closely to the grants as possible and feasible.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time to make a change

I have been in discussions with editors in my newsroom regarding some new initiatives our paper is rolling out in the coming months.
These include items such as hopping onto the Twitter bandwagon with both feet-- not to mention all fingers and thumbs, and writing more columns.
Rather than write columns about my few personal, non-work interests that might actually be pertinent to our newspaper's potential readership, I would rather continue writing about the areas I've spent considerable effort and time learning about as a reporter. As a result, we've discussed using this blog and Twitter to move to a "newspaper 2.0" model where my blathering on about education here (and possibly a separate municipal politics blog local to our coverage area) solicits comments from you that I would then write columns about in our print edition. Or it drives you to read my soon-to-be-published Tweets and start a conversation there. Or read the Tweet that would drive traffic here, or to our newspaper website and lead you to comment in either of those two locations. Or vice-versa, backwards and forwards, sideways and so on while we all hopefully manage to maintain our balance and sanity.
The biggest change for this site's small number of loyal readers is I will be disclosing my identity and my workplace as part of these changes. So, you can confirm your suspicions. :) Another is that when you comment here, anonymously or otherwise, you need to be aware I might use those comments in a column for our print edition and newspaper website. The commenting pop-up box will be amended to remind anyone making a comment about this.
There are a few weeks before these changes would need to be in place (IE: the first column), so some of the additions and changes should come about in the coming week or so.

Community recommendation backed by ministry

The folks in north Huron may be dancing in the halls this week as Ontario backed an application that would fund a modified version of the the North Maitland Educational Centre of Excellence proposed during an Avon Maitland District School Board accommodation review earlier this year.
The money received for 'local priorities' is enough to build the large, rural school parents in these communities had been advocating for, though board staff members are still recommending the school be K-6, with Grade 7/8 students attending a newly reorganized 7-12 school in Wingham. The battle to get the K-8 school recommended continues.
Most importantly, it is contingent on the board tackling the ongoing (and only predicted to get worse) problem of empty student spaces in its buildings. She says that’s why, in spite of strong public opposition to relocating Grades 7 and 8s into a secondary-school setting, staff will recommend the construction of a new K-6 school. As in the previous recommendation, Grades 7 and 8s would attend F.E. Madill.
She also confirmed the new recommendation will be for a single building, intended to replace all four above-named elementary schools.
“We made an application for 515 students,” Baird-Jackson explained. “So far, I haven’t seen any confirmation from the Ministry. All we have is (MPP Mitchell’s) announcement. But I think there’s an understanding that you have to build at a certain size to be able to provide all the things people want to see for their children’s education.”
While there are still important decisions to be made, this shows that when communities ditch the status-quo or 'consensus' recommendations in their accommodation review recommendations to trustees, they can get a positive response and dollars to support those recommendations.
Plus, they provide trustees with options they can stand behind in a way that serves the facility needs of today's students, the fiscal realities of programs and aging buildings and isn't in opposition to the community's recommendations. Examples of the lack of success of a status-quo or consensus report abound, but here's one that was to come to a head this week in Midhurst.

Stimulating announcements

There have been a smorgasbord of capital infrastructure announcements in recent days for new school, expansion and replacement construction as the Ontario government farms out the good Ministry of Education news to its local Liberal MPPs across the province.
This follows a few weeks of similar announcements and behaviour across the province. I have to say I do admire the government for this PR strategy. The legislature rises for the summer (or other holiday) and the PR flacks have the 'good news' announcements ready to fly out the door as members return to their ridings. Oh, except in opposition held ridings, where those announcements are done as 'also-rans' by Liberals in neighbouring districts.
Some examples this week include:
But not Sudbury, apparently, as the board is still dotting i's and crossing t's on its capital liquidity template with the Ministry of Education.
The most innovative? The Brantford one-- this marks the second facility in the Telephone City shared between the district's Catholic and public boards. The other one also includes municipal use. These schools work, but boards like their fiefdoms too much to really move in this direction on a more global scale.

More budgets passed

Needless to say I won't get every story on every one of the 72 publicly funded boards on here (no doubt some of them will go without any budget coverage this year). However, a few more for the day and night:
  • Pembroke, where balance was achieved without reserves, but with staggered bell times and other budget reductions.
  • Early Orillia story on budget being passed, with use of reserves. Features the decision for ongoing coverage of whether or not to keep the reading recovery program (whose staff I met at the EWA conference in May).
  • Owen Sound, where trustees debated professional development-- apparently the teachers' federation doesn't want any more PD. Yet a few paragraphs down, they still want release time for divisional meetings. Isn't that PD?
  • London early coverage, focused on a move to harmonize bus/walk distances.
Boards are finding their way-- although one comment on the previous post noted the Toronto boards aren't.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NDSS coverage, cont'd, again #2

This St. Catharines story isn't initially about Niagara District Secondary School, but then it becomes painfully clear the town council in Niagara-on-the-Lake has nothing but vengeance in its sights.
“I was lead to believe it is to make things more difficult for the school board to put in a school,” said Coun. Martin Mazza.
Monday night, the planning advisory committee approved the final draft of a comprehensive zoning bylaw, which deals with zoning for the entire municipality.
But in the process, committee members, including Mazza, ignored staff’s advice to give an institutional designation to the proposed elementary school site at Line 2 and Niagara Stone Road.
This doesn't do squat except irritate the relationship between two public government bodies and prolong the time line for elementary students to get a new school. The recommendation was part of the overall review of the town, but now council is playing planning games with its maps.
The board could still, irregardless of whatever zoning the town applies to the land, apply for a zone change and official plan amendment to allow for construction of a school. Council would likely face a positive recommendation from its planning staff, which could only lead to an Ontario Municipal Board appeal the board would likely win.
Again, these are misdirected energies that could and should have been used getting the board to drop its 'free busing' to neighbouring schools and in the town's own efforts to boost enrolment at NDSS.

Budget story trio

I'm trying to avoid becoming a simple education news aggregator, but the issues are flying quickly and furiously as trustees in Ontario head towards their summer break and complete budgets, remaining accommodation review decisions, etc.
A sample of budget stories:
Sterling (Community Press -- Hastings and Prince Edward board)
Welland (Niagara)
Most boards seem to be finding the balanced budget without heavy cuts to staffing or program-- welcome news after years of increases and in the face of a year when salary and benefit costs covered under provincial framework / discussion table agreements are funded but the Ministry of Education claws back grants in limited areas.
Certainly that seems to be the case in the boards I cover as well.
Boards have until June 30 to pass their budgets for 2009-10.

Pascal report, and coverage galore

As someone who has been asking when the heck Dr. Charles Pascal's report on early learning would be issued for some time know, it was sheer circumstance (Murphy's Law?) that it would come out at the exact time I was 41,000 feet above solid land on a flight home. It's old news by this point the report was released at Queen's Park Monday morning, then spoken to by Premier Dalton McGuinty later the same day whilst he was touring an elementary school.
There was plenty of coverage to be found wherever you looked:
Of course there was also reaction, from the various stakeholder groups who would feel the impact of government action on early learning. Perhaps the most bone-headed was the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario's who, of course, don't want anyone except teachers "teaching" in schools. Typical union, looking out for its members and only its members first. Thousands of parents would disagree with its perspective their children learned less from early childhood educators in their childcare centres. Teachers already work together with plenty of other people who help them educate children, ECEs would simply be one more group.
I'm sure ETFO's opposed to the recommended early learning additional qualification course requirement that's in the report too-- presupposing everyone with a B.Ed. knows how to deal with preschoolers. ECEs are (now) professionally accredited in Ontario, and have studied and concentrated on this specific age group in most cases. Why not use their talents in the highest and best use?
Personally, I enjoyed reading the report and hope many if not all of its recommendations see the light of day. The report would bring around the kind of change first envisioned by the Best Start program several years ago-- the program canned by Ontario after the feds pulled out of the joint children's services agreement to give parents of those under six a measly tax credit.
This shouldn't be a pissing match between the various sectors currently involved in providing childcare and early learning options for families. It's about moving forward to a goal of providing as many useful and relevant options as possible in the most logical manner.
Organizing early learning under one roof, centering it in schools that act as hubs and whose tentacles reach all students eventually anyway is an idea that has long passed its time to be implemented.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Quick hits from Edmonton

OK. I know I'm supposed to be on hiatus, but saw these three things and just couldn't resist. The news doesn't stop just because I go on vacation.

Walkout in Simcoe County
Nathan Taylor with another great story on the trustee walkout from a budget meeting (this link will likely be updated overnight). Really now, walking out on a meeting is just asanine behaviour. Stay in the meeting and get the vote deferred or defeat it. On the other side of the coin, why did they try and approve the budget right away? Did they want to go on an early summer break? Beach day? Budgets only need to be submitted to the Ministry of Education by June 30.

NDSS 'lifelines' running out
St. Catharines Standard reporter Tiffany Mayer has been keeping tabs on the Niagara District Secondary School issue of late, reporting earlier this week on failed attempts to extend the 'enrolment increase' deadline or stiffen up board home-school attendance policies. As this saga continues, one has to wonder whether there's a concensus position here-- the community has failed in its attempts to date to increase school enrolment leading up to the first reprieve deadline they were given. The board also doesn't discourage students from attending other schools.

Swim to Survive, sort of
The Belleville Intelligencer posted this story about the Grade 3 Swim to Survive program. Those unfamiliar with it should know it's a grant program available to all Ontario school boards on application that defrays busing costs to allow students to attend three hours of instruction in basic swimming and survival skills. This is very close to my heart, as I teach Swim to Survive in my local community and see hundreds and hundreds of seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds over the last six months of the school year. The stats in Belleville are depressing, but not because students aren't passing the skills test. They're depressing because the board and schools aren't sending more classes.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Couple of items:
  1. This blog has finally passed its 100th post. Thanks for reading-- the sitemeter and Google analytics show there are approximately 15-20 regular readers who skim this page every day. This is far better than I had ever anticipated in March when I began blogging.
  2. The blog will be on a short hiatus until at least June 15, as I trek to Edmonton for some holidays and volunteer work.

MacDonald on Bill 157

The Sun's columnist Moira MacDonald has this opinion on Ontario's Bill 157, 'Keeping our kids safe in school,' act, that provides some further guidance to educators when it comes to dealing with violent incidents at school and bullying.
Parents' groups, such as the London Anti-bullying Coalition, say the legislation doesn't go far enough. The LBC was founded after the death of Strathroy District Collegiate Institute student Joshua Melo, who hanged himself off a tree, reportedly because he was being cyber-bullied by his peers at school.
"We had so much hope," says Corina Morrison, co-founder of the London Anti-Bullying Coalition (ABC).
But, "there's no accountability in Bill 157 or support for the victims ... Parents are tired of dealing with a system that is unresponsive and ineffective."
Three parents whose children died after being targeted by bullies -- two through suicide -- were at London ABC's first press conference in 2004. Though based in southwestern Ontario, it fields calls from parents across the province.
Typical complaints go like this: Victim gets bullied. Victim's parents never find out what, if any action is taken -- and may not even be informed by the school of the incident. Perpetrator remains at school, bullying often continues, perhaps more covertly. Victim is increasingly traumatized and feels so insecure s/he either stays home from school or changes schools. The perpetrator often stays put.
Bullying is a complex, societal issue. This bill attempts to address some of its implications within schools, in addition to responding to violent incidents that have led to student deaths.
I've always wondered how much responsibility the education system needs to take when it comes to students being bullied. A raft of new programs and initiatives have taken hold across Ontario in the last five years, but I don't know that incidents of bullying have actually decreased.
Bills such as this one are steps along a continuum, but they cannot and should not be the entire solution to these problems. Everyone has to take responsibility if viable solutions are ever to be found.

Genius idea, others should try it

The City of North Bay is contemplating an idling bylaw provision that would apply specifically to vehicles idling near schools. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
A report by city solicitor Michael Burke, which was presented to council last week, recommends moving forward with the proposed bylaw. Burke points out in the report the city has had for several years an internal policy prohibiting the unnecessary idling of municipal vehicles. The report also notes the transit department recently saved 80 litres of fuel after applying additional restrictions on idling over the period of a week.
To add some perspective, many other municipalities already have idling bylaws, that prohibit the very behaviour this bylaw is seeking to eradicate. Targeting parents would send the message however, which can only be a good thing.
I also enjoyed the comment from a reader regarding idling school buses. I think most don't idle while they wait for students to load / unload.

Beach day?

The Simcoe Reformer has this story about June 5's 'beach day', aka 'let's skip high school and go get a tan / get sunburnt / get drunk off our asses.' I learn something new every day, I guess.
Detentions and calls home are the regular punishments for skipping school, but some teachers go as far as to book tests, presentations and assignment due dates on the first Friday of June as a deterrent to keep kids in school.
"We have 200 school days a year and so what if on one day, we want to go to the beach," said Glendale (High School, Tillsonburg) senior Adam Klassen. "It's not fair to book a test on that day."
Simcoe Composite senior Rachel Stoepker agreed one day away from the strict schedule of school isn't going to make or break your education.
"We deserve it before exams," she said. "One day doesn't do much and kids can (drink) any other day too."
Well, except that "one day" is mere weeks before you're off for 10 weeks, where you can plump your lazy ass down on the sand all you want. You also don't have 200 school days a year, it's more like 194, minus all those PD days and exam days. Maybe you need that day after all...

NDSS coverage, cont'd, again

The Standard posted this story Monday about a reunion of former Niagara High School students gathering to reminisce, drawing the connection to the current fate of Niagara District Secondary School. NDSS has an enrolment target to meet if it is to remain open past 2010.
At her old school, students spent their whole day in one classroom. In all, there were only about 50 or 60 students in the school, which today is part of the museum.
(Eleanor) Warner could never adjust and ended up leaving school during her Grade 11 year at Stamford.
"It's just not us," said Warner, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident.
"We were just too small a town and too small a class to push into a big school. Every class we went into we were told that we were lucky we were there and that we really weren't wanted. There was too many pupils. That didn't do much good, either."
Well folks, times have changed. NDSS was built for a population much larger than it houses today. The review process and ensuing continued coverage showed there are approximately 700 high school-aged students in NOTL. Free busing is provided to students who choose board schools outside the village. People are voting with their feet and NDSS is on the losing end.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Principal lawyers up over job transfer

The Brockville Recorder & Times posted this story Friday about Thousand Islands Secondary School principal Arlie Kirkland's attempts to block a pending transfer to another high school.
This is the first time in memory I've seen a transfer be contested by the person being transferred so publicly. In a recent example from Brantford, I questioned why the reporter there hadn't asked the principal what her preference or opinion was over being transferred to another school in Simcoe. No need for that here.
Kirkland indicated in the past she would like to retire next year, once she reaches the 40-year milestone of her career in education. It has also been made clear Kirkland wants to be a part of the 50th reunion celebrations at TISS next spring. A committee has already been struck and Kirkland is a member.
On top of this, the TISS school council is opposing Kirkland’s transfer and took their concerns to board administration on Tuesday. Committee co-chair Gord Eamer said he and other representatives were told administration would work on a compromise, but Kirkland’s transfer to Rideau was confirmed the next day by board of trustees chairman Greg Pietersma.
This could be precedent-setting if it ever does get to court.

Busing consortium RFPs?

The Belleville Intelligencer posted this story Saturday regarding the fear of smaller, independent school bus companies fearing the provincially mandated transportation consortia would rob them of the business they've traditionally had with school boards.
Something to keep an eye on-- while most student transportation in this province, dare I say this country, is handled by a few companies (ie: Laidlaw, First Student, etc.) and their subsidiary companies, there are still many smaller independent firms out there.

Six-student school closes

The Pembroke Observer reported Friday about the decision at the Renfrew County District School Board to close Calabogie Public School effective Sept. 1.
At first I was struggling to find the schools enrolment, then came across these graphs:
This as enrolment continues to plunge, from 24 students in 2005 to six students enrolled last year. Only two students have been registered for the school this fall.
The grade levels offered at the school have been whittled away as well, from junior kindergarten to Grade 6 to JK to Grade 3, as the board tried to reduce costs as much as possible to keep it operating.
I think this may be the last remaining school south of, say, North Bay, that has a student population so tiny. Later in the article, there is mention the board met with the two families who intended to send children to the school this fall before making the decision.
The small-school lobby has told us much about the value of smaller schools where the intimate setting reaps rewards in student achievement and the atmosphere within the school. But the 'how small is too small?' question always comes up in discussion of such schools, even though none has been as tiny as this.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Learning about the interweb and other technical things

The Orillia Packet and Times has a great story posted Thursday night about a budget discussion within the Simcoe County District School Board. In a nutshell, the board is deliberating over a 6.0 full-time equivalent cut to its computer software technicians effective 2009-10, which would leave three full-time positions remaining in the department.
“If this is what students are doing in the classroom, this is non-negotiable. There’s an expectation to become more competent in using technology with your students,” said Lindy Zaretsky, superintendent of instructional services and leadership.
Coaches can help teachers figure out how to incorporate technology into their lessons, regardless of the subject, she said.
Another of (Clearview trustee Caroline) Smith’s concerns was the fact “the kids’ capabilities are outstripping us.”
“We are in the dust,” she said. “We are old ladies with canes and they are rushing by on their motor scooters.”
“New teachers coming out of teachers college are so high-tech. The new teachers don’t need all of this (training),” (Orillia trustee Debra Edwards) said.
This article has all the right pieces-- it reflects the discussion amongst trustees, the administration's perspective and even gets the union involved. Kudos (once again) to Nathan Taylor.
Other boards are no doubt contemplating similar cutbacks to their helpdesk / IS staff. I don't see this as being as huge of a problem as it once was. Several boards have moved to 'active directory' operating systems that allow remote diagnosis / repair / update of any terminal at any school. Each school site usually has a lead teacher as the on-site designated computer person. In the era of a SMART board in every classroom, this become a moot issue, no? Plus, as the article itself says, up-to-date teachers (young and old) are tech-saavvy when it comes to these things.