Thursday, July 23, 2009

On hiatus

The blogs and Twitter feed are going to be on hiatus until about Aug. 10. Please check back after that date for new posts.

Vindictiveness-- the municipal strategy?

The ongoing saga of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake vs. the District School Board of Niagara continues its sad, slow march to the Ontario Municipal Board, according to this Niagara Advance piece.
The DSBN has put Niagara District Secondary School on notice that if it doesn't boost enrolment to 350 by October, it's days are over. Initial relief in the community the board didn't vote outright to close the school is turning into vitriolic panic as the October count dates gets closer and closer.
NOTL councillors are on the Community Schools Alliance executive.
NOTL's planning committee has now given its consent to screw the DSBN out of a preferred school site in the village, where some in the community want a new school to replace two aging facilities. Why? Because council wants the high school to stay open-- and if it can't, then it wants the building to be used as a school of any kind.
Speaking for the Friends of NDSS, Jamie King urged the planning committee to approve the revisions that would impact on school board decisions.
The zoning as suggested would require the school board “to participate in more thoughtful and engaged discussions regarding the future of elementary and secondary education” in NOTL, King said.
“Despite the fact the DSBN feels it knows enough about the character and nature of our town to unilaterally dictate where education will and will not be offered within our community, we believe that any steps this planning committee can take to ensure our community participates in this decision-making process and that our best interests are served are steps worth taking.”
This doesn't imply the community is entirely supportive. Save Our School supports the new school and has been working its contacts to ensure council knows it wants the new 'Virgil' school to go ahead, where the board wants to build it.
The DSBN has already appealed a severance denial for the subject property. If council votes to pass the new comprehensive zoning bylaw, it will appeal that too. There's far more constructive work that could be done here -- such as drumming up another 100 students for NDSS out of the 350+ who live in NOTL but don't already attend that school -- that would allow this new project to proceed. Instead, council is intent on simply inflicting damage against a board it disagreed with on the future of the high school and making its elementary students pay the price.
Those students won't continue to be served as best as possible in their current schools.
They won't be in a revamped NDSS building that was never built for them and would still be too large for the population.
If I lived in NOTL and wasn't a journalist, I would be among the SOS supporters clearly telling this council to give their heads a shake and realize the future of their elementary and secondary schools don't have to be welded at the hip.

Community Schools Alliance cont'd

Now that I've written our own Community Schools Alliance-related story (will be linked once published... eventually), I wanted to note a few more things.
The letters from CSA chair and Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft have been sent to municipalities across the province, via e-mail as I understand. Councils are being asked to put membership in the CSA to a vote.
As it was explained to me by Middlesex County CAO Bill Rayburn, the CSA's governance model will be similar to that of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. Very logical, since several of its executive committee members have been AMO presidents. Each municipality (if it so chooses) is a member, with the executive determined by the membership on a regular basis. As the CSA is just starting up, it has an inaugural executive and though Rayburn didn't specify this, I would assume that executive's term would be subject to approval/renewal at some point in time.
It brings an interesting thought to mind-- why the CSA didn't just form itself as an AMO caucus. There are already numerous AMO caucuses such as the northern one, the northwestern one, the small-urban municipal one and the rural one. The bear-pit sessions (closed to media) at the ROMA conference are particularly instructive for many councillors. In addition, there are the western and eastern wardens' caucuses. CSA looks like it will essentially encapsulate many of the same municipalities that are already participating in these various AMO subgroups.
I would expect and hope to see continued coverage coming in over the next few weeks (like this Niagara Advance piece) from around the province as each council that has received an invitation discusses and, likely, approves its membership.

Summertime ARC coverage

A rarity during the summer break, but the Napanee Guide had a story posted Thursday regarding the choices before the Limestone DSB after an accommodation review covering the village and its surrounding areas.
The committee at first recommended the one-school option, which was subsequently followed by senior staff issuing a report also calling for the construction of one bigger school, as opposed to two smaller ones. Upon further review, and more public consultations, the PARC group changed its endorsement to that of the two-school option, and senior staff was asked to go back and re-examine some of the questions and concerns from the public.
That report was tabled on July 7 to the board's School Enrolment-School Capacity Committee.
The primary recommendation made was that "the Limestone District School Board build one new school (approximately between 600 and 630 pupil space) on municipal services, at the south end of Napanee, to address the accommodation issues at H.H. Langford Public School and Westdale Park Public school; and further, that all or almost all students ... currently attending Sandhurst Public School be relocated to Bath Public school; and that the funding allocated by the Ministry of Education be allocated to the construction of the new school, and alterations to Bath Public school."
The staff response indicated two schools weren't feasible, maintaining support for the committee's first one-school recommendation. In the current climate and Ministry of Education rules for capital projects, this is understandable. Quotes later in the story refer to programming and other reasons for the single-school preference. Quotes from the two-school supporters sound very rural-urban, which seems odd given Napanee is no metropolis.
Napanee's municipality would likely be among those receiving an invitation to the Community Schools Alliance.

Monday, July 20, 2009

NDSS update

The St. Catharines Standard posted this Monday indicating that supporters of Niagara District Secondary School continue to push back on Niagara-on-the-Lake's Eden High School, a former private Mennonite school brought into the former public board pre-amalgamation as an alternate school.
Sandy over at Crux of the Matter blogged about Eden on July 5 and can speak to its history far more authoritatively than I can. Head over there to learn more about how this school became part of the publicly funded system.
From the article by Tiffany Mayer:
Paolo Miele said the Christian faith-based programs at Eden High School infringe on policies in the Education Act that prohibit indoctrinational religious education or focusing teachings on a particular faith.
Miele also claims the alternative high school's admission requirements, giving preference to siblings of students or those with a historical connection to Eden, are discriminatory.
"This is about fairness," Miele said. "I'd like to see permanent policy looked at and followed."
Kim Yielding, the board's communications manager, said in the 20 years since Eden became part of the board, the historical connection to Eden has become less of a factor in granting admission than whether a prospective student has a sibling at the school.
"That's also the case with other alternate programs," Yielding said. "If you had a sibling enrolled in extended French and you wanted to apply to that school, you could because your sibling is currently enrolled there."
Eden isn't doing anything wrong, Ministry of Education spokeswoman Patricia MacNeil said.
"Certainly its existence does not contravene the Education Act," because religious programming is happening outside regular class time, she said.
Annie Kidder, executive director for the advocacy group People for Education, also has her doubts that Eden's admission requirements, which also include a letter explaining why students want to attend, are discriminatory.
Eden's entrance requirements differ little from those at other publicly-funded alternative schools, which by nature are exclusive, she said.
"There are many alternative schools that say you have to audition or write an essay or you have to have certain marks, or even you can't have special education needs to get into the school. Have we decided that's OK in our public education system?" Kidder said.
This is the latest step for NDSS supporters to try and do what they can to avoid closure of the school at the end of this school year, given the student population is about 100 short of a 350 target set by trustees last year.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

SQE compares tax-credit scholarships to failed Ont. policy

A commitment to a cause some times means what you lean on to support your position can't support their weight of your argument.
Take this post over at the SQE blog, School for Thought. It's largely based on this St. Petersburg Times article on tax-credit scholarships. From the blog:
For anyone who supported Ontario’s now defunct Education Tax Credit this St. Petersburg Times article will make you wish it still existed.
It seems to School For Thought that the cost of running such a program in Ontario would have been a lot less than the costs of implementing class size caps or ineffective reading programs that do not translate into significant achievement gains.
Um, well, I think SQE has compared an apple to an orange.
The Equity in Education Tax Credit, in place briefly in the last futile days of the Harris-Eves Conservative government, would have provided, at full rollout, a refundable tax credit of up to 50 per cent of private-school tuition to a max of $3,500 per year, per child. Anyone who had children registered in these schools could claim and receive the tax credit, regardless of family income, etc.
The Florida tax-credit scholarships are exactly that-- a scholarship given as a tax credit to families who send their children to private schools. With one big difference. From the article:
In this expanding universe of options, the tax credit scholarship is aimed solely at low-income children.
Our scholarship parents pay on average $1,000 out of pocket to make up the difference between the tuition and the maximum $3,950 scholarship. This is remarkable given that their average income is $25,400 for a family of four. Two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic, and three-fifths of them are from single-parent households.
So, this is not a shotgun approach that gives every family of private-school students a tax break. It's targeted and directed at those who would benefit the most.
The EETC was a desperate move by a government of the day that was desperate to avoid the thumping it surely knew was coming at the polls. The population it benefited most were the upper-middle- to upper-class families -- where most of the private-school support exists -- most likely to already be Tory supporters.
During the 2003 campaign, I covered a whistle-stop Eves campaign visit in Woodstock (the same day as the 'kitten eater' comment came out). With hundreds and hundreds of faith-based private school students in the district, students from one private school came to the rally to show their support for continuing the EETC. The one secular private school where attendance is all about the ability to pay.
It's clear the EETC is not anything like this Florida program-- they're a world apart.

Friday, July 17, 2009

TorSun backs TDSB ARCs

The Toronto Sun staked out an editorial opinion today regarding the pending flood of accommodation reviews destined for the Toronto District School Board. From the editorial:
Avoiding school closings -- or putting a moratorium on closures as former education minister Gerard Kennedy did in 2003 -- has been politically smart in the past. It's now time for the Toronto board as a whole to flex its muscles against overprotective types trying to do the best for their own neighbourhood, but hurting the entire school system as a result.
And yes, that is very painful.
But this is a school board running at a deficit and raiding reserve funds to keep the lights on and books on students' desks and teachers in the classrooms.
The editorial goes on to say there has been only one vote to close a school in the TDSB since 2002, Timothy Eaton Tech. That vote has been subject to a petition and the Ministry of Education announced today, July 17, it has appointed David Cooke to conduct an administrative review of the decision.
For the Sun to come out with this position shouldn't surprise, given the paper's traditional viewpoints. However, before simply dismissing what the paper has to say, it's important to recognize that as far as I've been able to observe, the Sun is virtually alone in reporting on the pending reviews. Moira MacDonald broke the story, and I've been unable to unearth any significant reporting from other major Toronto media since her story broke. The closest I can find is a Louise Brown story from July 9 in The Star, where West Toronto Collegiate is used as an example and the pending reviews are referenced.
As written here previously, these reviews and how they're to be covered should be highly instructive to the rest of Ontario, where we've been dealing with these for a few years now.

There's that budget thing we needed to pass

News this week from the Brockville Recorder and Times the Upper Canada District School Board finally passed its 2009-10 budget at a special July 15 meeting.
I'm disappointed in this coverage. It's a standard budget story, describing dollars in and dollars out, etc. That's important information.
Where's the explanation for why this budget was passed 15 days after the Ministry of Education deadline? The deadline is very clearly set at June 30 of every calendar year and there's no explanation as to why this board -- the only one not to meet this year's deadline -- wasn't able to do this before deadline.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More on the CSA

My colleague Deb Van Brenk at the LFP had this published Thursday regarding the launch of the Community Schools Alliance and its initial goals. The Freeps has given some coverage to this concept as it was discussed before its official creation, but was several days behind other media (particularly in the Niagara Region) in writing and publishing the launch of the CSA.
It does provide some clarification to the term 'smart' moratorium however.
The Community Schools Alliance, (CSA) begun in Middlesex County, now has an executive that includes high-powered officials from across Ontario in a full-court press to get the province to change how rural and small urban schools are assessed for closing.
A "smart moratorium" would halt rural school closings, only where there's local lingering debate, until there can be broader municipal input into school boards' community consultations.
Note the use of 'small urban' as well, which means, technically, per the province's own definitions, communities such as Chatham (the settlement area, not the one-tier municipality), Sarnia, Owen Sound, Orillia, Woodstock, Brockville, Belleville, etc. etc. etc.) Roughly, anything under 100K population, give or take. Or perhaps that's too generous-- anything under 50K? Yet the moratorium would only halt rural-school closings where there is 'lingering debate?' So, if we keep disagreeing with the decision, it never actually gets implemented? This seems irrealistic to expect.
Media working the way it does, this article in the LFP -- seen as the 'paper of record' for a swatch of southwestern Ontario between the K-W / Brant border and Essex County -- carries a lot more weight than anything I would ever publish on the subject in the pages of my own newspaper. Not a critique, just accepting reality.
Glad to see the CSA website is running a little better-- some of the initial kinks have been worked out, and the alliance has also setup a Facebook page for those who prefer to surf within that world. Current membership as of writing this post was at 15, but that number's likely to grow, hopefully substantially. The news items are links and items that I've already been exposed to through a first round of accommodation reviews, but they're good reading regardless of where you sit on the bigger picture. I do wish all member municipalities were listed somewhere on the site, instead of just the executive members-- although it appears all rural and small-urban municipalities are about to receive a request to join the alliance in time for their August meetings.
These rural and remote communities (a term I think more accurately reflects the alliance's existing and desired membership) are rightfully piqued to say they feel their input hasn't been considered. I take the comments I continue to receive from those who believe I am 'against' their cause to heart-- I make every effort to be fair and consider and report on all viewpoints and as many perspectives as possible when appropriate. I am accountable for what I write and will respond, explain, defend and/or admit error where appropriate.
Which is why I write in a more critical tone about some of the alliance's statemants. I haven't witnessed every vote in this province, but I know if you count time as a factor of consideration, each of the 'rural' reviews in the board I cover -- the ones that led to the creation of this alliance -- received a long and thorough vetting by trustees. A trustee chaired each ARC and presented the recommendations, and some of the debates were quite fierce. Almost every single decision (eight of 10, if memory serves) for a school closure (including all three in London, that big, bad urban monstrosity) was a majority split decision with the dissenting trustees doing so quite loudly. One very urban trustee was practically in tears as she lobbied to keep a small school in an impoverished area of west-London from closing. She didn't have a gallery full of pissed off parents and municipal leaders to play to either-- she had only a few parents and one very upset teenager in tears at the impact the closure will have on her younger sister, a girl with restricted mobility. So I do get a little, er, flustered at the suggestion rural and remote schools have a monopoly on community and on the devastating impacts of losing a school.
Often, those who disagree with the decision continue to feel as though their input wasn't considered just because their own opinion didn't carry the day. My sh*t detector is telling me this may be the case for some of the alliance's members.
Maybe I'm wrong-- post a comment or e-mail me and explain why. I welcome it.

Revised guidelines, revisited

Had the opportunity this week to chat a few people up about the recently revised Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines, which I've blogged about twice this month already. This included finding the 'B' memo from ministry staff to school boards, along with the relevant revised guideline and administrative review document. I tapped some local reaction and will link the relevant article here, once it's posted.
From the B-memo:
Accommodation decisions can be some of the most difficult faced by school boards and they are best made at the local level with meaningful involvement of the local community.
Based on these accommodation review processes, the Ministry has received hundreds of comments directly and through the media from school boards, parents, community members and Ministry-appointed independent facilitators. We also reviewed reports from other stakeholders and the report of the Declining Enrolment Working Group, Planning and Possibilities, which recommended that the Ministry review the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline.
As a result of the feedback, it is clear that the original Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline supports that principle by strengthening consultation and decision-making processes at school boards. The Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process has supported improved transparency of decision-making, constructive discussions among the board and the public, meaningful community engagement, and outcomes that will benefit current and future students.
The Reference Criteria are an important tool for boards, ARCs and the public. The criteria – outlined in the Terms of Reference – are intended to improve transparency about accommodation decision-making by ensuring that ARCs and the public consider accommodation options that fit within the educational and accommodation policies of the school board. Examples of Reference Criteria are: grade configuration, programming objectives, transportation policies, and school utilization. It is up to boards to determine the level of detail they wish to include in the Reference Criteria.
Boards are expected to be transparent regarding the capital planning process in order for ARCs and the public to understand the difference between planning proposals and the capital approval process. Boards are also expected to be transparent with ARCs and the public regarding available funding, the process of applying for funding, and funding approvals, including planning approvals. Where no funding is available to support a particular accommodation option for students, boards are required to inform the ARC and propose how students would be accommodated if funding does not become available.
(Ellipses reflect there was text omitted between the quoted sections)
These revised guidelines would apply to any accommodation review committee trustees vote to create after Sept. 30 of this year. The memo clearly points out the revised guidelines do not apply to accommodation decisions that have already been made, or to review committees that have already begun their work-- or have presented recommendations to trustees but a vote has not yet been held.
If a board is not commissioning any new reviews this fall, it has until March 31 to update its policies to be compliant with the revised guidelines.
The ministry calls these changes (outlined here) 'small.' I disagree. Some of these changes will, hopefully, allow boards to be much clearer in their goals for an accommodation review. It also cannot be understated how much impact the procedural change in how review committee recommendations are presented to trustees is going to have. This may eliminate the feeling in communities the committee's work was buried in an administrative report, as it will now be presented to trustees under separate cover.
I missed one change in the revised guidelines-- the business rep and municipal rep on committees are being replaced by a single 'community' representative, who can be nominated from any part of the school community.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Full circle

Another step in the path was completed Tuesday, with the first iteration of my new column in the Sentinel-Review. The goal is to draw from this blog and my municipal politics blog to publish a regular column (one a month or so) on the conversations that these online presences initiate. This particular column served as more of an introduction to the idea, and it will continue developing through the next few columns.
Feedback, as always, is welcome.
This is cross-posted with minor edits at

More on bus operators

The Trentonian was out in Brighton Tuesday where Premier Dalton McGuinty was chatting up / re-announcing the capital dollars for a new school in that town. Conveniently, the latest epicentre for small school bus companies worried the provincial busing consortia are about to piss away their livelihoods.
Rolland Montgomery cornered the Premier who was in Brighton to announce the construction of a new school.
Independent operators across the province are in the midst of battle, fighting a provincial government plan that will force them to compete against multi-national firms by bidding for school bus routes.
Operators like Montgomery say if the province pushes through with the plan, they will be picking up welfare cheques and not students.
But Montgomery appeared optimistic following the impromptu session.
“The Premiere (sic) assured me that a special assistant will get back to us as he doesn’t want to see the small school bus operators in the province going out of business,” said Montgomery. “It seems like he [Premiere McGuinty] wants to support us locally, and we need to be supported.”
A spokesperson for the premier did not want to go on record with a comment.
Later in the article, it refers to the Wellington-Dufferin consortia, where a mom-and-pop school bus company lost 10 of its routes in a pilot RFP process there. The concern is this move to consortia-based RFPs will result in only large domestic and U.S.-based (the article quotes Montgomery saying "offshore") companies getting contracts.
This has been discussed in previous posts, including the one directly below this one.
A thought that frequently comes to mind when discussing school transportation is the ultimate option: no transportation. There are a number of first-world countries around the world where getting the student to school is the family's responsibility, not the school's. I had an exchange experience in Switzerland in 1993 where that was the case-- as a student in the Swiss 'école superieure' I was responsible for finding my own way to school and home every day.
Just a thought, not an ultimate suggestion.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Belleville signs onto busing issue

The Intel had a story posted to the web late Monday as Belleville city council added its support to the small group backing independent school bus operators in the Hastings and Prince Edward DSB area. I've blogged about this before, here and here.
The bus operators claim the RFPs being issued by the transportation consortium in their region are keyed to give preferential status to multi-national or larger school bus operators (IE: Laidlaw, Students First, etc.). They're fighting for their livelihoods as they believe the RFP process will shut them out and they'll lose the hundred or so routes they currently operate on contract for the different boards in the consortia.
Vaughn Richmond, owner of Richmond School Coach, told council during Monday’s meeting that the group can’t compete with large multi-nationals.
In the past, Richmond said, drivers’ contracts were renewed annually, with the ministry only serving to oversee the related grant structure.
Richmond stated several concerns with the ministry’s proposal, including potential reductions in operators and increases in provincial taxes that he said could arise “after an RFP removes the competition.”
The Independent Operators also have concerns about the stability of the system under large companies.
Richmond told council that it would “not be a stable platform under an RFP,” and that there are already two multi-nationals operating in the Quinte region that he knows of.
There are legitimate concerns here about the ability of smaller school bus operators to survive in a consortium-based world where contracts are handed out worth tens of millions to transport tens of thousands of students to hundreds of schools within a district. Larger companies, I would suspect, are able to more easily offer the route-sharing and fiscal efficiency that a smaller company may not be able to, putting them at a disadvantage within a consortia bound to reduce costs and the total number of routes it's running.
However, given the ultimate goal of the consortia is to reduce the overall amount spent for school transportation in the province, I don't forsee the scenario Richmond presented to council.
Later in the piece, one councillors gives his full support but asks whether the independents can submit a joint bid-- apparently they aren't recognized and able to bid as a joint entity.
This sort of scenario does exist in other consortiums-- school bus operators banding together for joint contract negotiation, etc., in an association that includes multi-national and local bus operators. Something to ponder.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ottawa teacher 'protected' by union

The Ottawa Citizen moved this story across its twitter feed Saturday and I saved the URL for later reading and browsing. It involves the conviction (by plea) of an Ottawa high school teacher who fondled, fingered and had oral sex with one of his 17-year-old students.
Even though the teacher admitted to sexual contact with the student, school officials told police that they didn’t immediately report the abuse after a representative from the teacher’s union asked them not to.
The girl’s father, reading from a victim-impact statement, said he could only hope the school would fire the teacher and call police after they reported the abuse, but that “almost does not happen.”
“Despite the recommendation of the head of (human resources) to dismiss (the teacher), some of the school trustees are of the opinion that they are under no obligation to call the police,” the father said. “I am floored this would even cross their mind.”
This astounds.
First, but a very minor point, it astounds the parents didn't go directly to the police with the e-mails. However, they're not at fault here, the teacher is. The school should have called the police immediately after receiving notice, if not then immediately after the teacher admitted to the behaviour.
Schools are mandated reporters for many other forms of child abuse. That any one of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association or their French-language counterparts would have actually made that request of the board is deplorable. The concern for a member should only extend so far as to request s/he be suspended with pay / without pay until the police investigation is complete and a decision is made on whether charges are laid.
This is embarrassing for the teachers' federation involved and I hope whoever made that request the board -- and the board employee who accepted it -- are both given their walking papers.

Bluewater update #8

It's been a few days since I've posted anything about the Bluewater District School Board. I'd been holding on to this news story for a few days until things calmed down. The Sun Times published this piece almost a week ago regarding a city council-school board connection.
The expansion of the parking lot at Bayview Public School is postponed until after a memorial tree can be safely moved to a different location. The news came out as the board requested a deferral of the city's consideration of its site plan for the expanded parking lot.
Bayview Student community council member Rhonda Brown said an alternative plan should be adopted so the playground can be saved and the memorial tree kept where it is.
Brown said she and three others have surveyed 37 neighbours of the school and all but four are against the school board’s expansion plan.
She said she hopes the delay will allow her time to gather enough community opposition to change the board’s plan.
“Hopefully, this will give us time to make more people aware of it,” Brown said yesterday. “The board has only worked with one plan . . . and presented no other options.”
Parents are also concerned about Grade 7-8 students using the same playground equipment as kindergarten students, she said. While this will be addressed by the so-called balanced day — which will have different age groups at recess at different times — it will not address before-school playtime, Brown said.
It doesn't surprise me the neighbours of the school are against the idea-- people seem to be very influenced by what they can or can't see from their own property. Skim the decisions of the Ontario Municipal Board and see how many residents participated in appeals due to their "view" being ruined.
I do hope that in their work the members of the school council have also asked parents what they think of the pick-up/drop-off amenities at the school. Oh, and that they asked the neighbours how they feel about traffic and street-access at morning bell and dismissal times. While this hasn't been covered in any of the media coverage of this particular parking lot expansion, I'm sure that a kiss-and-ride and on-street woes contributed to the decisions regarding this lot.

In an aside unrelated to this issue but connected to the board's woes, the BDSB has posted ads to hire a fart catcher (Oh, how I miss Frank Magazine). Take a look at the posting for communications officer here, where you can see what they're looking for. The job is also posted at or some other teaching job site used by boards to sift their applications. The Sun Times published a piece on why Monday.
Given the difficulties this board has been having in communicating internally and externally, it might be a good idea to proceed with this hiring. For the sake of improvement, I hope the director of education and senior admin listen to any advice this person has to give them, rather than this being an empty move.
Guilty admission: I did briefly consider applying for this job-- better pay, better hours, better benefits, gold-plated pension... ah, the life of a civil servant. However, it would require crossing over the dark side, not quite ready for that. Yet.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Community Schools Alliance on the web

This just came in-- the Community Schools Alliance released a number of documents today as well as launching a website. Be prepared-- if you click that link today, it takes you to the homepage where a Flash video of Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft loops, endlessly. The links were also loading veeerrrry slowly.
From the release:
The Community Schools Alliance is asking Minister Wynne to support a “smart moratorium” on all school closings disputed by municipalities. The goal of the smart moratorium is for the Ministry, schools boards and municipalities to work together and develop policies addressing such issues as planning for declining enrolments, a mutually agreed upon Accommodation Review Committee process (ARC), a review of funding to rural and small community schools, and defining the working relationship, transparency and accountability between municipalities and school boards.
Reycraft, Chair of Community Schools Alliance said, “No community should lose their school if they don’t want to lose it. Ontario municipalities are concerned about the Accommodation Review Committee process and the impact this flawed process has on the socio-economic fabric of our communities.”
A smart moratorium? Smart according to whom?
Gerard Kennedy's 'requested' moratorium from 2003-06 is what's brought on the rush of ARCs and closings currently under consideration today. The very reason this coalition has been founded. Another moratorium, whether smart, dumb or otherwise, is only going to defer and delay the challenges ahead of virtually every school board in the province. The Declining Enrolment Working Group on which Reycraft himself sat was very clear we simply cannot defer, delay or ignore this issue.
Working together more effectively? Absolutely. Agree 150 per cent. Come to ARC meetings prepared to contribute -- and bring your wallet. Learn to accept that just because you've planned for 15 years of residential growth, it doesn't mean the people who move into those residential units are going to be punching out five kids each. You can't create school-aged children out of thin air and there are fewer and fewer of them every year. Municipalities also need to understand that just as they've updated municipal services and facilities, education needs to update its services and facilities in a sensible way with the best use of the resources at hand.
Just to show equal-opportunity lovin', the school boards should make sure they are more open to municipal offers of cash and other resources (ie: land) that could help find sensible solutions to accommodation challenges. Trustees should make sure they're seen vetting the accommodation review committee recommendations as thoroughly as possible. When a closure is the decision, particularly a "community school" closure (what school isn't a community school...), trustees need to work double-time to explain, in plain English, why that was the best option for all students.
In the meantime, this gives us something to keep an eye on as we head through the summer.

The Community Schools Alliance

There has been some continuing coverage of the Community Schools Alliance, a municipal politicians' group coalescing around the impact of rural school closures. Debora Van Brenk at the London Free Press first wrote about the group as its creation was discussed at Middlesex County and West Middlesex council meetings. The Strathroy Age-Dispatch contributed an article as well, featuring Glencoe parent Karen Aranha's analysis of school capacities v. enrolment in the Thames Valley District School Board. The latest coverage came this week, from the Free Press' Chip Martin as well as the St. Catharines Standard's Tiffany Mayer.
Of the two, I prefer Mayer's piece-- you can tell it's written by someone with experience in education. Nothing against Martin's piece, but he's the LFP's politics reporter. From Mayer's article:
County council decided earlier this year to poll other small municipalities at risk of losing schools and form a coalition to fight what it saw as a flawed accommodation review process and its impact on “the socio-economic fabric” of communities.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, which stands to lose its only high school if 350 students don’t attend by Oct. 31, got involved after Town Coun. Jim Collard met Doug Reycraft, Southwest Middlesex Mayor and alliance chairman, at an Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) meeting, and discovered what their municipalities had in common.
“Really, you just change a couple of words and it could have been our area very easily,” (NOTL Lord Mayor Gary) Burroughs said after hearing the same story at the group’s first meeting two weeks ago.
Burroughs said the group’s mandate is to make boards more accountable for its decisions to close schools and give communities the chance to appeal those rulings.
As a media-seat viewer to the Middlesex County accommodation reviews that provided the genesis for the CSA, I have some unique perspective to the background and context at hand here. There are two completed ARCs in the county -- a 'north/east' one with five schools, and a 'west' one with five schools. In both cases, the committees' recommendations did not include any school closures -- in fact, from the first round of 10 ARCs at the TVDSB, I would say the 'west' ARC was the only one to present a volley of recommendations with some real meat to them. The committee had a commitment from local municipalities and even a neighbouring First nation that tentatively supported its recommendations. Up to that point, its report was the most innovative response I'd seen as a result of the ARC process. Currently, there are no ARCs happening in Middlesex County. London and Oxford have borne the brunt of the 15 ARCs commissioned in the TVDSB to-date-- with five apiece. (Which when complete, may change Aranha's much-touted analysis)
These two Middlesex ARCs also presented the board with two of its three administrative reviews to-date. David Cooke came out on two occasions after review petitions were accepted by the ministry. His first report here, second here. I've blogged about portions of his second report recently, particularly his recommendation the board do a better job of overtly explaining why it prefers schools with student populations in the 350-400 range (Most of the Middlesex schools recommended for closure are full, but smaller than that). The board got the message-- take a look at the minutes from an Ingersoll-Beachville ARC to see some of that rationale.
These politicians are entitled to lobby for the interests of their communities. However I doubt Minister Kathleen Wynne or the Ministry of Education is going to do any more than what's already done in releasing revised guidelines. The province has always maintained these are local decisions, left to local school boards and their locally elected trustees. I would challenge its members to broaden their horizons however, and allow politicians from any community to join. Rural areas and small towns don't have a monopoly on 'community schools,' and the growth in their numbers if these other communities could join would have an impact. I doubt the group would allow that, given its focus on how school closures are just another element in the destruction of rural Ontario.
As an aside, this is not the first such group-- early in the world of ARCs the Coalition for Small Schools was formed and still exists. They've been rather silent lately.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Latest sports attempt for NDSS

The Niagara Advance posted this story Thursday in regards to Lezlie Murch's efforts to combine her high-skills tennis program with attendance at Niagara District Secondary School in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The school needs about 100 more students in the building by this coming school year or the District School Board of Niagara will close the school.
Murch says she hopes to have 10 to 15 students for NDSS by September—students who are interested in elite athletic coaching in tennis, golf, rowing, hockey and football.
Those students will be charged a fee to help pay for professional coaches, with sports training taking place outside the school day, she says.
Another recruiter in Niagara Falls has another eight to 10 international students lined up for NDSS who are interested in improving their English and the experience of a year in Canada, Murch says.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is an “easy sell” when talking to parents of foreign students, she says—the small, safe community has more appeal than Toronto or the US.
Murch can also help prepare students, whether local or international, who want to attend US universities on athletic scholarships—all of her tennis students have been placed in American universities on tennis scholarships.
As mentioned in several previous posts here, this was an innovative response to an accommodation review when the board challenged the community to boost enrolment, even as it continued to facilitate attendance at out-of-area schools. Programs such as these don't have as high-yield potential as say, a football team, but in the community's defence every effort should be explored.

Globe blogger on grading teachers

K-W area Globe and Mail blogger Kathy Dobson posted this Wednesday on her 'A Parent's View' blog hosted off the site. She argues she should be able to 'grade' her sons' teachers in a similar fashion to how they grade students.
Instead, there would be a section for 'Teaching Enthusiasm.' Do they share the subject matter with clarity and passion? Do they convey a sense of excitement about what they're teaching?
And most importantly, do they actually like teaching?
Do they even like kids?
There would also be a mark for 'Teaching Methods.' For instance, do they believe that using sarcasm with students is an effective tool? Did they ever abuse their power over students?
Then there would be the usual report card stuff.
How many times were they late? How many times were they absent? Do they show respect for others? And bring a healthy lunch and snacks to school?
And just like any report card, there would be a 'Comments Section.' It would list those crucial strengths/weaknesses/next steps.
Do they use visual and verbal cues to convey the meaning of familiar material? Do they make effective use of their free time? For example, do they use their 'spare(s)' to grade papers in order to return materials to (especially) their high school students in a timely manner?
There would also be that critical third page. The 'Response Form.' The page where the teacher would have the opportunity to evaluate their report card and, in turn, evaluate the parents of their students.
The teacher could note, with specific examples, where they believe the parent failed to support the teacher's work with the student.
This provides some interesting fodder to the post on the Macleans' piece on 'bad teachers,' where a few readers are getting a little excited in their commentary. The comments after Dobson's post at the site are also illuminating.
As I mentioned earlier, grading a teacher can be even more subjective than grading a student. However, if you feel the need there are plenty of websites that already exist where you could go and vent. I wonder if Dobson's aware of these?
Also, I wonder whether there's any thought here to a process? If I had concerns with my child's teacher, I would first address these with the teacher, then the principal. Document, create a paper trail. Of course, I would have to be open to being challenged and having my child's behaviour challenged as well-- something that's difficult for many parents to accept: that their children's behaviour may be colouring the view their teacher is 'bad.'

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Moira's awake

OK, so the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald is awake and writing up a storm these days (or, she wrote these a while ago and they're only running now-- it happens). Today's topic is Bill 177, which readers here would be familiar with since I blogged about the bill when it was given first reading in the legislature a few months ago. I also published a story about it here, given Thames Valley District School Board trustee Peggy Sattler's membership on the governance review committee whose recommendations are reflected in the bill.
MacDonald's main contention is the bill is another big step in the provincial takeover of school boards, given its provisions stipulating a trustee's role, changes in debt instruments and student achievement and well-being.
On the one hand, trustees are to "bring concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board." But if the rest of the board disagrees, the trustee nevertheless must "support the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board."
Trustees are also not to "[interfere] in the day-to-day management of the board by its officers and staff." This could work well for meddlesome trustees with too much time on their hands.
MacDonald moves on to indicate this provision could handcuff trustees who disagree with majority decisions. My read, not being a lawyer, is this would still allow for dissent. It's possible to disagree with a decision (and continue dissenting in any future related resolutions) without interfering with the implementation of board decisions. Many boards allow reconsideration in their bylaws, which if the dissenting trustee can convince enough of their peers, could lead to another vote on the original decision.
Would this muzzle outspoken, media-friendly trustees? I'll say no.
Bill 177 will also stop boards from borrowing money independently for major building projects. Instead, they would have to borrow money from the Ontario Financing Authority, the Ontario government's lending agency.
For most boards, that's OK. The OFA's rates are supposed to be good. As well, when boards borrow money, the debt shows up on provincial books, so it's understandable the province wants more control.
But large boards, such as the TDSB, fear that being forced to deal with the OFA may drive up their borrowing and/or banking costs. Because of their size, large boards often get preferential rates on their borrowing and/or banking when they bundle their services with a particular bank. If they have to take their borrowing business to the OFA, they may end up borrowing money at a higher rate and/or losing preferential rates on the rest of their banking.
This element of the bill passed by me, as I was unaware there were many boards out there still doing their own borrowing, since the Ministry of Education has been awarding capital projects based on the board debenturing the project through the OFA and simply having the province front the board the annual payment. I also don't believe this is a serious impediment.
I agree with MacDonald's assessment this bill is aimed at further centralization of control at the provincial level through regulation. However, she may have missed the boat. I wasn't as committed to following province-wide education coverage at the time, but Bill 78, passed in Gerard Kennedy's days, was a far bigger power grab than Bill 177 could be. We're still awaiting some of the regulations permitted under Bill 78, and it was passed over three years ago.
My big concern with legislation by regulation is the regulations can change after any election since they're approved by cabinet. Legislation at least requires vetting by the legislature, whatever that may be worth in a majority government setting.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Valuation to information: ARC changes

I tripped across this while writing the Toronto District School Board ARC post Tuesday. The province very quietly posted an updated pupil accommodation guideline on its website June 26. That link will take you to the page with both the June 26, 2009 PDF and the original October 2006 PDF.
Key changes based on a quick review:
  • School "valuation" has become school "information" for every reference in the guideline-- Interesting given the weight one might attach to value vs. information.
  • A whole new section on accommodation review terms of reference (see below)
  • Changes to the review process wording on the school information profiles
  • New section under the review process regarding accommodation options
  • Big change in the way a committee's final report is presented to trustees (see below)
It's still unclear to me at this point when these new guidelines apply-- although it's already been suggested they don't apply to any reviews currently underway.
The big changes here are the addition of terms of reference, where the ministry indicates the board must tell the committee its mandate.
The mandate will refer to the board's educational and accommodation objectives in undertaking the ARC and reflect the board's strategy for supporting student achievement. The Terms of Reference will contain Reference Criteria that frame the parameters of ARC discussion. The Reference Criteria include the educational and accommodation criteria for examining schools under review and accommodation options. Examples may include grade configuration, school utilization, and program offerings.
The Terms of Reference will identify ARC membership and the role of voting and non-voting members, including board and school administration. The Terms of Reference will also describe the procedures for the ARC, including meetings; material, support, and analysis to be provided by board administration; and the material to be produced by the ARC.
This should be a big help in addressing a lack of clarify and focus identified by many committee members on past reviews. It was brought up in both the Declining Enrolment Working Group report and elsewhere. The submission of the final report should be clearer too, and excise the feeling the reports are manhandled by staff before they're presented to the full board of trustees.
It will deliver its Accommodation Report to the board’s Director of Education, who will have the
Accommodation Report posted on the board’s website. The ARC will present its Accommodation Report to the Board of Trustees. Board administration will examine the ARC Accommodation Report and present the administration analysis and recommendations to the Board of Trustees.
This is a big change-- the ARCs have not, that I'm aware of, been presenting their recommendation to trustees as an ARC. If anything, ARC members have spoken to the committee's recommendation in public input following receipt of the dual ARC-admin report. This will add transparency and some accountability to the process.
More to come on this as I learn more...

Pascal's impact

The Brantford Expositor has featured some interesting commentary on the evolving impact of the 'With Our Best Future in Mind,' report by early learning adviser Dr. Charles Pascal. First came community editorial board member David Dean's column, followed by a letter to the editor in response.
Dean wrote:
There are serious implications for operators and employees of private daycare programs. Operators have made significant investments in facilities and operations in response to regulatory requirements. They offer a valuable service for parents and provide youngsters with a positive and nurturing experience. They know that if they don't, the parents can and will take their kids elsewhere. Try this in your local elementary, separate or public school! Current employees in private daycare will be hoping that such a plan will ultimately lead to improved salaries and benefits as well as greater respect from the "established" education community. I have never understood the huge discrepancy in salary between E. C. E. teachers and their counterparts in kindergarten, grade 6 or grade 12 for that matter. This needs to change and should not depend on the workplace being unionized. Work of equal value should be compensated more or less equally. Few with any experience of working with children will question the value of a good E. C. E. teacher.
George Hatton's response was to say he found the column enlightening, and used it to comment on the recent solution for a Brantford Catholic school principal whose transfer was turned into a desk job.
This week, in my coverage area, the County of Oxford will likely kill the childcare component of a much-discussed library project in the Village of Tavistock -- which sits between Woodstock and Stratford. Combined with a decreasing interest in new childcare spaces in the village, the Pascal report is cited as the reason for asking council to eliminate the childcare spaces from the project.
When I've called or asked, the biggest answer I keep hearing to the impact of these recommendations is that no one knows for sure. No one in the childcare sector knows what the recommendations' implementation means for their future. Few in the municipal sector have come out stating what the recommendation for their role in this proposed new early learning world will be.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Toronto ARCs it up, finally

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this earlier today at work. The Toronto District School Board chair 'announced' the board will likely strike up to 20 accommodation review committees once school resumes this fall.
The explanation for why I almost tumbled will come in a couple of graphs... first, a few links to what was written. The story I saw was Moira MacDonald's column in Monday's Sun. I've just spent another 10 minutes looking for any other story online among the usual suspects and came up empty-- please mail me links if you find other stories and I'll add them. (Toronto Star story)
The declining enrolment crisis has been growing at the TDSB for more than a decade with 16 schools closed between 1998 and 2002 and a technical school closed last month. Toronto's Catholic board -- one-third the size -- has closed 21 schools. About one in five -- or 110 -- of the TDSB's 558 schools are below 60% of their enrolment capacity and on average are half-enrolled or less. The school board's overall enrolment is forecast to drop by another 20,000 students over the next 10 years -- the equivalent of about 44 elementary schools with 450 students each.
The board's new director, Chris Spence, agrees the board needs to confront the serious issue but also told me in an interview last week that creating "schools within a school" -- that is, housing several small schools or school programs under one roof -- could be part of the solution.
No question -- school closures are not fun, even when the reality of dwindling enrolment is staring you in the face. But the costs of the TDSB carrying its current portfolio of schools is hurting everybody through the financial drain that is spread among all schools struggling to stay lit, heated, cleaned and well-maintained on provincial grants meant to support a much smaller group of buildings.
Tell us something the rest of Ontario doesn't already know.
Which is why I almost fell off my chair. I have been reporting on school closures since my first day on the job as a reporter -- even earlier as I wrote about them while still at Carleton University -- and have been covering ARCs since the ministry said 'go.' Many districts are into their second, if not almost their third round of accommodation reviews under these guidelines, released over two years ago. An updated version was quietly posted in June.
Pre-ARC (and possibly post, if the District School Board of Niagara hires Watson and Associates Ltd.), Watson told the Thames Valley District School Board it had the second-highest 'school vacancy' rate in the province. Guess who had the highest (in 2006)? Uhuh, the TDSB. School closures and ARCs were never going to become real to the movers and shakers in this province until the Ministry of Education cut off the revolving slush fund that "saves" the TDSB budget every year and its trustees were forced to look at some of their undercapacity schools.
I'm actually looking forward to any coverage that comes out of these potential reviews. It'll allow the rest of us across the province to learn that one's attachment to and engagement in a small-school community is more universal than many in small-school communities outside urban centres would like to acknowledge. It will allow Toronto to learn more about what happens in the schools under review. It will allow, if committees and trustees are creative, an opportunity to revitalize school facilities (admittedly fewer of them, however) in the areas of the city that likely need it the most.
It'll allow the rest of us to hopefully see Torontonians make the same errors, strike the same 'save our school' campaigns and live the ARC experience so many have already been a part of in our communities.
Hopefully the Toronto media (if not the bigger outlets, at least the community papers and other media) doesn't disappoint.
Bring it on.

Francophone enough to attend?

Another item I'm catching up to in these dog days of summer when education reporting slows to a trickle.
In April, Ontario revised its admission requirements for French-language schools. This was accomplished through a broader amendment to the definition of who qualifies as a Francophone for provincial services. The change for school admissions was then turned into a news release and announcement by Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne and Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs Madeleine Meilleur in June.
There has been precious little media coverage of the changes, with the Sarnia Observer being one exception.
The changes were made to address declining birth rates and an increase in immigration and the number of families with only one French-speaking parent.
"In the Sarnia area, basically what will be new for us will be families that speak neither French nor English upon their arrival in the area," said Janine Griffore, director with the Conseil Scolaire de District des Écoles Catholiques (du Sud-Ouest).
"I think the challenge there will be around the supports we can provide for that family ... to aid in a successful transition for the children."
The implementation of these policies will likely have a greater impact on enrolment for boards existing in those parts of the province where the Francophone population is a minority, and where many families considering full-time French-language education for their children would technically be considered either Allophones (mother tongue other than English/French) or Anglophones.
Students in these areas have always been subjected to a means test before being permitted to enroll in French-first schools-- assessments conducted at the school level involving the principal and usually a superintendent. However, anecdotally, I've heard this means test is not always applied to the same standard, depending on how much of a presence the local French-language community holds. Our local CSDECSO school's population is 75 per cent Anglo or Allo, and many parents choose the school to provide vaunted education in our nation's second language.
In those areas of the province where there is enough French-language population, the expansion of these criteria likely won't make any difference as their populations are strong enough to support full enrolment.
All the same, many of these boards are also 'catching up' to decades of not having their own schools, so they're among the newest schools in the province too. Hopefully this doesn't factor into admission criteria.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bluewater update #9

I have been putting this off for a while given there was much material to read in order to catch up with all that's been happening at the Bluewater District School Board. Readers here and at MendEd will remember a process that started with a letter from an MP and a resignation of a school board chair earlier this year.
MendEd has been doing a much better job than I in keeping track of all the media coverage and developments. This includes the coverage by the Owen Sound Sun Times (article, unsigned editorial) of the release of the public consultation report prepared by Thames Valley District School Board trustee Peggy Sattler.
Sattler (this link contains outdated info), is a two-term past-chair of the TVDSB, mother of two and works in the communications industry. She provided the board with a simple summary of what she heard at two public input meeting attended by 170 people. A MendEd commenter quibbles with Sattler's characterization of 170 people as a 'small' sample size, but in a district where there are 180,000 public school supporters and 18,000 students (who all have parents, even if some of them aren't involved in the day-to-day of their kids' lives). The number of people who stepped forward was equal to 0.09 per cent of the student count, hopefully trustees take this into account when reading the report.
Moving on to Sattler's report -- her summary:
Several issues were repeatedly raised by parents, teachers, and community members:
  • The board must focus on students and ensure that students come first in decision-making and board operations.
  • Trustees are accountable to their communities, and have an obligation to represent their constituents. There is a need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of trustees, the director, and the senior administration in board decision-making and operations, as well as the advisory roles of SEAC, SCCs, and PIC, and the board’s obligation to consult under Reg. 612. Trustees must fulfill their responsibility to evaluate the performance of the director and take action based on the results of the evaluation.
  • There is a serious concern about the “silencing” of teachers, and the inability of teachers to express their opinions about educational issues, or question board policies and administrative directions, without fear of reprisal.
  • Parents, teachers, and the community do not feel consulted by the board and have not been given opportunities to provide input into board operational decisions such as rotary instruction, gifted programming, assessment and evaluation, and the balanced day.
  • There are increasing parent, community and teacher concerns about bullying and safety in schools, and the adequacy of board responses to incidents of student-to-student and teacher-to-student bullying.
  • Frequent visits to schools by both trustees and senior administration are important to ensure a genuine understanding of what really happens in a classroom. Trustees should be able to communicate freely with both staff and parents, and should regularly attend SCC meetings to inform parents of board issues and respond to questions and concerns. Parents should be able to communicate freely with teachers.
  • In several cases, the board has failed to respond promptly, meaningfully, and appropriately to parent and staff concerns. The board must acknowledge past problems and ensure open and transparent communication of plans to address concerns and make improvements.
This is a worrying list. But this is the list that should be focused on as the board and its public seeks to improve communication and the relationship between staff, senior administrators, trustees, parents and students. Sattler successfully separated the wheat from the chaff in terms of the issues that arise over and over again in several sections of the public input sessions regarding things trustees can do little about. She also failed to include the repeated concerns about credit integrity (mostly brought up by teachers and retired teachers), the move away and then towards rotary instruction in the intermediate grades and parents' concerns over balanced-day v. traditional schedules-- though I would read these included in her final bullet point.
We do need to remember this is just part of the process. The two ministry "Mr. Fix-its" still have to complete their focus-group meetings and submit a final report and set of recommendations to the Bluewater trustees. Then the bigger challenge-- the trustees have to do something with the recommendations, or the whole exercise will just have been a giant waste of time.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Building fiefdoms

The Nugget posted this column Friday/Saturday by David Dale regarding the changes happening to Mattawa schools. Particularly, the local French board getting funds to build a new high school (soon to be a K-12 campus), leaving the currently twinned F.J. McElligott Secondary School. When complete, the French-language students will move into a brand new facility, leaving F.J. McElligott, an older building, feeling their loss.
Mayor Dean Backer summarized the mood in Mattawa.
“Our biggest fear is the separation of our students,” Backer said. The community wants any new school to house all the students, he said, as well as a library and other town amenities in partnership.
Franco-Nord, on the other hand, has an opportunity to go it alone and is proposing to expand its future facility into one that also serves French Catholic elementary students. The tykes at Ecole Ste. Anne, which has been deemed too costly to repair, will potentially bring the total number of Franco-Nord students under one roof in Mattawa to 237.
The situation that exists in Mattawa, the one where two school boards share a facility, is unique in Ontario.
Unfortunately, educational segregation and the battle to build school board empires is quite common.
Some may argue the diversity of our educational choices creates a healthy competition environment that stimulates progress by requiring excellence.
I’ve grown to think it spreads scarce resources too thin and builds unnecessary walls that divide our communities.
English Catholic, French Catholic, French non-Catholic and English non-Catholic systems provide a lot of choice for consumers. There are also a few private schools within jetting-distance for those with excess cash to spend.
And native students have the option of attending Nbisiing high school in Nipissing First Nation’s Duchesnay Village.
Dale goes onto to speak about the money this is all costing, in an era when the pursestrings supposedly should be or could be tighter.
A similar situation is happening in my coverage area. The Conseil scolaire du district des ecoles Catholiques du Sud-Ouest got an $8-million grant to build a new French Catholic high school in Woodstock, which would serve the eastern end of this geographically sprawling but small-population minority language board. Recently, the grant was amended so they too can move their existing elementary school to the same site and create a K-12 campus. The new Ecole Notre-Dame will replace the current Ste-Marguerite de Bourgeoys and Ecole Secondaire Ste-Marie, the latter of which shares space with the English Catholic St. Mary's High School.
This could be seen as creating fiefdoms-- particularly in an age when the public Thames Valley District School board voted last fall to close the rural Norwich District High School. Or it could be seen as giving students in the French Catholic board an equal foot to stand on, after decades of being the poorer cousin to English boards-- living out of their portables, schools managed by their school boards or sharing space by necessity in an era where there weren't enough students to justify a separate facility. I can certainly understand that-- as an English Catholic school graduate pre-1998, we were always the poorer cousin to the local public board in terms of facilities, programs, etc. due to the rich commercial assessment that went to public boards by default and allowed them these items that per-pupil funding has made difficult to maintain.
What makes this odd is now the province is seriously considering the recommedations of the Declining Enrolment Working Group, which include mandating co-terminous boards to share vacant space before building new.
The question is whether $9.1 million in Mattawa or $13 million in Woodstock would have created better learning facilities for as many students as possible in existing facilities. I suspect that's not as easy to answer.

Macleans on 'bad' teachers

I tripped across this one reading my two-week issue of Macleans this morning-- and SQE's blog also has a post on it. It focuses mostly on Ontario situations, with some linkage to similar quandaries in other parts of the country.
According to Barrie Bennett, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the dismissal process is so onerous, the risk of reprisal from teachers’ unions so great, that “most principals find it’s not worth the effort.” Instead, they approve transfers, or hide struggling teachers where their deficiencies can go unnoticed. The result however, is this: a system that keeps incompetent teachers in the classroom.
The fact that more bad teachers aren’t being fired is “a problem that nobody wants to talk about,” says (Virgina assistant principal Brendan) Menuey, who authored a 2007 study on the subject. Despite research indicating that about five per cent of every workforce is incompetent, he uncovered a truth about his district he describes as “scandalous”: less than one-tenth of one per cent of tenured teachers were being dismissed annually for poor performance.
The Ontario stats are written as 27 since 2004, only 0.002 per cent of all teachers registered with the Ontario College of Teachers. That stat is likely flawed, simply based on the assumption that all OCT members are classroom teachers or teachers on other assignments. They're not. Principals, superintendents and directors of education all have to be OCT members-- and Macleans doesn't specify whether it accounted for these when it produced the stat in the article.
I'd be curious to see how they got that number-- particularly since a lingering item on my to-do list is to crawl the entire database posted online and then do some number-crunching with it.
As to the issue itself-- "bad" teachers.
This is a minefield as far as I'm concerned. The effectiveness of a teacher is highly subjective, and there are few objective yardsticks by which to make a dispassionate judgment on a teacher's abilities. Do we fire teachers whose students suck at standardized assessments? Is it really entirely their fault?
There are some easy measurements however-- the obvious ones like abuse, bullying (yes, some teachers do that too), poor classroom management, etc. There are yardsticks for that, and it's a shame if some administrators feel as though they're just not up to challenging the federation to can a teacher who obviously shouldn't have gotten into the profession in the first place.
Perhaps if our teachers' college programs were, oh, better, we'd weed out more of these types of teachers before they ever entered the classroom.
However, how does one go about canning the teacher who's counting the paydays until retirement and has lost his/her fire? Or, in this age of children whose parents solve all their problems, do you can the teacher who actually makes students work? The one (of a decreasing number, some would say) who refuses to grade on a curve? Or, as asked earlier, the one whose students perform poorly on a standardized assessment?

Barrie letter writer schools council

It's nice to see Barrie city council (and those who supported its decision earlier this week) being schooled on what exactly the decision to designate the city's Prince of Wales school really means. Check out this letter written by Shawn Bubel Thornton posted Friday in the Barrie Examiner:
However, if designation is successful, the Ontario Heritage Act prohibits owners from altering, refurbishing or modernizing the structure without receiving approval from Heritage Barrie (only after a comprehensive and likely drawn-out application process).
In my opinion, this does not make for an attractive development project in need of a major overhaul. On the contrary, it exponentially shrinks the already small pool of potential suitors.
Here is where it gets weird: The rules are clear regards altering a heritage building, but I do not believe even if the building were to be designated heritage that there is anything in the OHA that would stop an owner from demolishing the building anyway.
So in essence, what council will achieve will be to help perpetuate the very thing it is attempting to avoid. Moreover, this action will reduce the value of the site to land value only (minus the demolition costs of course).
And that loss of equity would be at the sole expense of the school board.
If the intent is truly to preserve history (on someone else's dime), surely there must be a more intelligent way to go about it. (Bold is my emphasis)
Hallelujah! Someone with a modicum of common sense. He must have been paying attention to what city council in Orillia is considering-- purchasing old schools. That would place Orillia in full control of determining what happens with these 'heritage' assets, in the meantime keeping the facilities in public hands.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Upper Canada in budget trouble?

An update to the budget deadline post from Tuesday. Ministry of Education communications staffers informed me today that the Upper Canada District School Board did not pass a balanced budget by the June 30 deadline.
The staffer told me in an e-mail the ministry is working with the board to get more details. I'll post more info if I hear of any updates.
Per the Education Act, boards must submit balanced budgets to the ministry by deadline. Failure to do so allows the Minister of Education to send an investigator to the board to take a poke around and suggest measures to balance the budget to trustees. If trustees don't follow these, the minister can take over the board (see: Toronto Catholic, previously Toronto District, Ottawa-Carleton District, Hamilton-Wentworth...).
A search of daily newspapers in the UCDSB territory produces zero articles regarding this missed budget deadline. In fact, there aren't any budget stories, period. If someone has seen something out in eastern Ontario about this I've missed, please let me know. It's shame there hasn't been any coverage of this-- if this gets to a ministry investigator and, god forbid, a ministry takeover stage, the district loses.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Barrie could learn from Orillia

The Packet and Times had this article today coming out of a city council meeting, indicating the city has put in offers to purchase four schools slated for closure when the Simcoe County District School Board voted to build a new 'Lions Oval' school early this school year.
"We're better off having them in our ownership," Mayor Ron Stevens said this week.
"We want to acquire them and see where we go. Nothing is rock solid."
Hillcrest, Mount Slaven and David H. Church public schools are all being closed by the Simcoe County District School Board, which is building a new elementary school at the Lions Oval.
The historic Orillia Central School on Coldwater Street, which houses a daycare and alternative school, has also been surplused and is up for sale.
A number of possible uses for the properties have been discussed informally, ranging from neighbourhood parks to affordable housing.
The city could work in partnership with other groups or corporations to develop the properties or transfer them to the private sector with specific directions for projects, Stevens said.
If the city is successful in acquiring any or all of the properties, input would be sought from the public regarding potential uses, he said.
What a smart move by the city to hold onto buildings that already have community use in the facility or on the grounds. By owning the buildings, the city can direct what happens to them. If it wants to designate, it can. If it wants to move programs in there, it can.
Much, much smarter way of holding onto these public assets than simply designating them, as the council down Highway 11 did last week when it designated a school destined for closure after the next school year.

Modified 'North Maitland Centre of Excellence' approved

The Clinton News-Record (a weekly) posted this story Thursday coming out of the Avon Maitland District School Board's final meeting of the school year last week.
Trustees approved the closure and consolidation of five schools in northern Huron County and the construction of a new 'super school' to house all JK-6 students from four of the schools and some of the students from the fifth school.
Huron East/Central Huron trustee Shelley Kaastra, who also once fought to save a rural school, was in tears as she expressed her support for the recommendation. But (Stratford trustee Meg) Westley was clearly the most vocal supporter.
"There has also been the suggestion that we haven’t listened. I would like to suggest that we certainly have,” the board’s past-chairman continued. “We do appreciate your concerns. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we do what you want us to do . . . but I have seen the staff recommendation change and morph as a result of the input from the community.”
The conclusion of this particular accommodation review provides an opportunity to highlight how constructive it has been to the process and how a community can respond and achieve some of its desires. It was the community that recommended one single school to house all students through the accommodation review process, an idea board staffers latched on to as they revised their recommendations through the last year.
The community (its blog is a fascinating read) wanted the school to be a JK-8, not JK-6, due to its concerns and opposition to turning F.E. Madill in Wingham into a 7-12 high school.
“All they’ve done now is increase the animosity between the community and board,” (Mark Beaven, a community member who served on the board-mandated public-consultation committee) said to reporters, outside the building.
In his delegation to the board, Beaven called on trustees to defer the decision until September 2009, in order to gather further information about funding possibilities for a Kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school. This is the option being promoted by what’s known as the “Hot Stove Group,” consisting largely of community-based members of the now-disbanded public consultation committee.
Trustees, however, remain wary of administrative staff’s advice that the promised $8.8 million in Local Priorities funding from the provincial Education Ministry also comes with strings attached: that any new construction must provide a solution for excess space - only projected to increase - at F.E. Madill.
Let's not lose the point here however-- a community rejected a status-quo or consensus 'keep everything open' recommendation during its accommodation review and pitched and supported an idea that had enough merit to garner board support and funding from the Ministry of Education. This storyline should be mandatory reading for all trustees and accommodation review committee members.