Thursday, November 26, 2009

The board, the OMB, the town and... the lawsuit?

Oh, the things people consider when they're desperate.
Tiffany Mayer at the Standard had this posted late Wednesday (the link may change Thursday morning and I won't be able to update it until Friday) regarding some of the options being discussed behind closed doors by Niagara-on-the-Lake council in its last-ditch, grasping at straws effort to save Niagara District Secondary School from pending and certain closure.
The tactic was revealed during a Niagara-on-the-Lake town council meeting this week when Coun. Martin Mazza, who sits on the NDSS strategy committee, asked how quickly plans to save the school could go forward.
Mazza referred to a "Plan B" and the possibility of a lawsuit before being reminded he was revealing information discussed behind closed doors.
When asked Wednesday about the probability of a lawsuit, Mazza was mum.
"I've been told to keep my mouth shut and refer everything to the Lord Mayor," he said.
Mazza's mention of a brewing lawsuit came a day before board trustee Gary Atamanyk said the board broke the law by not following proper procedure when it voted last year to close NDSS.
Ooops. Gee, when you sit on a committee that meets (likely illegally, at least for portions) in-camera and then you blab about it in open council, doesn't that negate the justification for holding the meetings in secret to begin with? Council didn't want the board to learn of its scheming, but it appointed someone with some pretty loose lips.
I don't know if the language in the last graph I quoted there is Mayer's or Atamanyk's (I suspect the latter), but it's a little overstated. Boards and other governance bodies have bylaws for procedure and process during meetings-- these are generally based as most people would be aware on Roberts Rules of Order, with any particular tweaks as designed and passed by the board as a whole. These laws apply only to the council / board and its members-- "broke the law" implies criminal intent, versus failing to follow procedure.
Second, I again question the motive here-- the motion which Atamanyk and possibly NOTL council believe was out-of-order was read in June 2008. If NDSS had met the enrolment target set that night, not one person would give a flying patootie about the legitimacy of the motion as presented. It's only now, almost a full 18 months after the offensive motion was read, accepted and voted on that this is being contemplated? How convenient, and how desperate. Even if the basis of the concern was the inconsistency between how the June 2008 motion and the series of motions put forth earlier this year (pre-Oct. 31 deadline) were dealt with by the chair, it's been over a month and the board has had several meetings during which this could and should have been considered in proper process.
I ask myself at the end of the day-- if the June 2008 motion had (or will) be ruled out of order that night (or at any other time), what's to say the result would have been any different? I re-read the minutes from that night's meeting. The good stuff starts on P6 and runs to P21. Is there space, read by the right lawyer, to argue whether the right call was made that night when the motion that was passed was ruled in order by the chair? Possibly.
Trustees were trying to come up with some creative solutions. A straight "close the school" vote was defeated 6-5, and all the others except this last one under contention were also defeated. But along the way, trustees created a procedural nightmare in a rat's nest of motions.
However, the minutes from the subsequent meeting show no concerns or questions over the rat's nest from trustees when they discussed business arising from the minutes. Nada.
Say the chair had ruled the motion in question out of order-- what would have happened then? Three motions to keep the school open and spend varying degrees of money and set different enrolment targets had been defeated. The motion to close the school, period, had been defeated. The only plain-spoken motion left was to vote to keep the school open, period-- but there's nothing to suggest that would have passed. Any other convoluted motion only would have added to the rat's nest and likely have led to the same result as where the community sits today: unable to meet an enrolment target and facing closure.
Finally, I just love the headaches this should be creating for someone over at the Community Schools Alliance. What credibility is that group ever going to have now when two members of its executive are burning every bridge to the school board because the town didn't get its way? Wasn't the alliance's goal about getting the ministry to force school boards to be more considerate of municipalities? Isn't that a two-way street?
You can't ask for consideration out of one corner of your mouth while you're giving instructions on what parts of the bridges to douse with gasoline and where to find the matches with the other side of your mouth.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Anyone else livestreaming?

The Thames Valley District School Board held its first-ever livestreamed board meeting Tuesday night— the link is obviously dead now, but will be live when the board holds its public meetings (usually on the second and third Tuesdays of each month at 7 p.m., with some exceptions).
The trial run was held in early November, and the Nov. 24 meeting had about 25 people connected at its peak use— though the IT guy admitted many of those were superintendents seated in the administrative pews and others in the building.
Once the word gets out though I would expect more to connect— given the swath of southern Ontario at play the trip to London isn't as easy as firing up the computer and clicking on a few links (high-speed Internet service would be key).
Is there any other board in the province livestreaming their meetings? Are any of them even carried on local cable TV?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reminding trustees on conflict of interest

Mike Baillargeon is a man on a mission-- unseat every last neutered trustee elected in 2006 to the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He helped launch the latest missive this month as another two trustees are being brought up on conflict of interest charges at the board. Baillargeon was successful in removing former trustee Oliver Carroll from his post after filing a complaint of conflict of interest some time last year.
The Toronto Sun has been consistent in its coverage and commentary on this issue, the latest of which was tossed my way by a frequent if anonymous tipster as Moira Macdonald has her say in Monday's Sun. From her piece:
Citizen activist Mike Baillargeon -- victor last February in a similar complaint against former board chair Oliver Carroll -- had long hinted he was working on an action against (Barbara) Poplawski and (Angela) Kennedy, dating back to a May 14, 2008 meeting where Carroll also got caught. Baillargeon said he only learned of the conflict of interest incidents involving Poplawski and Kennedy during the proceeding against Carroll.
Even Kennedy told me she and Poplawski had "heard rumblings" Baillargeon might do something with it.
But Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act gives people just six weeks to file notice of a conflict of interest once they learn about a case of it. Baillargeon went into overtime -- according to him, because he had been (unsuccessfully) trying to get the two trustees to resign instead of going to court -- and lost the ability to move on the matter himself.
The current application names parent Arnaldo Amaral as the complainant. Amaral's lawyer, Stephen D'Agostino, says his client is reluctant to speak to reporters -- too bad, because this is a situation that needs as much transparency as it can get. Court documents say Amaral learned of the conflict allegations in late September from his local trustee, Catherine LeBlanc-Miller.
Agreed. This sounds a tad too coincidental and only serves to bulk up what Macdonald is insinuating. Of course, if you consider the Sun also published a piece earlier this year from Baillargeon himself, filled with exclamatory statements and frequent use of the word "resign," is there much work left to show he appears obsessed with ousting all remaining trustees from a board that has essentially been neutered until after the 2010 vote? Macdonald has been a supporter of the cause, given its implications for overall governance, however I question at what point in Baillargeon's quest we move from righteous to simply obsessed.
That said, I was one of the few reporters outside the GTA bubble to report on the Baillargeon v. Carroll case's ruling (I did so in June, as budgets were being finalized). The ruling extends the consideration of conflict, noting that pecuniary interest extends to family members regardless of a trustee's individual ability to impact on their relative's financial outcome. I also posted about it here, in a rare item on my own reporting.
I suspect based on my own observations at the time budgets were passed earlier this year that despite various legal opinions obtained by trustee associations and board solicitors on the ruling, most trustees with family employed by the board they serve on voted for budgets anyway. Locally, there were no staffing cuts to employee groups where trustee family members worked, therefor per a strict comparison to the Carroll case, it could be harder to draw a conclusion of conflict under the act.
As the ruling notes, Carroll very obviously and overtly went about influencing the vote to avoid staffing cuts that could have reasonably impacted his family members. Both of the family members in question were very low on seniority lists and could have reasonably seen their positions axed or get bumped out of any other job by a member with more seniority.
As Thames Valley District School Board chair James Stewart noted in my June article, the reality is the vast majority of trustees have zero direct influence over staffing since they're not involved on most hiring committees and the payroll budget is largely dictated by the Ministry of Education through the Grants for Student Needs and other legislation.
The nature of these two new allegations is similar to the Carroll one, that these two trustees influenced the vote to protect jobs at the TCDSB as part of the 2008-09 budget votes. Both have relatives employed by the board, although there's no indication in coverage to-date whether any or all would have been as threatened by cuts as Carroll's relatives.
The two new cases should serve as a warning to those trustees in similar situations they're subject to the same accusations.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bluewater update No. 15

As usual, a few days late on this one, and beaten as always to the punch by the folks over at MendEd. Bluewater District School Board director of education Mary Anne Alton faces her performance review before the board's trustees early in the new calendar year.
Board chair Jennifer Yenssen explained the review was delayed from its originally scheduled time in order to complete the education outreach, read: the Messrs. Fix-its review and surveys. Alton's name and reputation have certainly been the centre of much attention throughout this process. The entire process also provided an opportunity to see how some trustees don't understand their role in today's school board governance. Many trustees don't see their role as corporate governors, providing policy and financial approval to board business but doing so through the only employee they actually hire and supervise-- the director of education.
Trustees are prepared to shift the format of the director's performance review to one that uses feedback and data from those who work most closely with Alton, such as the senior administrative team, central office staff, principals and union heads, as was suggested by education consultant Geoff Williams.
Williams, who was dispatched to the Bluewater headquarters last year at the request of Education Minister Kathleen Wynne to help the board work through its problems, says trustees will find that data gathered year-round from staff reports and surveys will help them enormously in the evaluation process.
"They will absolutely be able to gauge whether the director is doing the things the director is supposed to be doing from this information. A 360-degree survey collects data the board is looking for on an ongoing basis from a variety of sources . . . they should be collecting evidence over a period of time as opposed to receiving it as part of a one-shot event," said Williams, adding that he doesn't see the delay in the review being problematic.
None of these evaluation concepts are earth-shattering for those with experience in evaluating those who hold positions of senior management. As an employee at a non-profit some years ago, I completed one of these 360 evaluations on my own supervisor at the time as part of his performance review.
Oh, and to clarify-- I wouldn't expect Alton's review to be conducted in public. Don't expect to be able to sit in the meeting where trustees sit down with her and discuss her review, as this is a textbook example of an in-camera meeting that every board follows when conducting its director of education performance reviews. Once she has received it though, it's fair game to ask the chair of the board whether Alton received a favourable review or not. For those who want to know more, it may also be fair game to pony up the $5 for the freedom of information request and ask for a copy of the evaluation. The request might be declined by the board, but overwhelming public interest would be a good route to appeal (another $25 fee) it to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Things you learn updating links

A recent comment highlighted a need to review and update links in my blogroll. The 'Snap' preview function was pointing us to the wrong place and providing erroneous RSS updates. In doing so, I tripped across a great PPoint presentation over at The Lampost, a blog written by a Durham District School Board high school teacher.
It demonstrates how some teachers, good teachers, are enabling the use of technology as another tool for teaching and learning.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NOTL shenanigans-- UPDATED

Some recent coverage of the continuing Niagara-on-the-Lake / Niagara District Secondary School / District School Board of Niagara saga. There has been almost continuous coverage since the end of October when the high school's enrolment deadline passed-- the folks at SOS do a great job of keeping track of everything published relating to NOTL schools (including posts here, natch). Those following this issue should sign up for the site's e-mail advisories.
Two things popped out in this week's Niagara Advance. The first refers to what council is doing to determine whether or what its options might be to continue advocating for NDSS and achieve a reversal of the board's decision.
At a special council meeting last Thursday, council decided four town representatives would join forces with Niagara District Secondary School supporters and the Chamber of Commerce to decide how to proceed.
Councillors began their meeting with a behind-closed-doors discussion of legal options, said (Lord Mayor Gary) Burroughs.
These meetings will continue to be private, as the article notes, so the board is not kept in the loop of committee plans. If I lived any closed closer to NOTL, I would be filing a complaint with the council closed-meeting investigator immediately after the next meeting of this committee. It's a committee of council and can only meet behind closed doors when permitted under legislation. The same rules that apply to council apply to its committees. By appointing four members of council to that committee it's a de facto council committee, per my interpretation. Even if there's a filing fee to have the closed-meeting investigator look into it, the ensuing very public spanking will be well worth the fee.
Nevermind this closed-mindedness is the exact opposite of what the Community Schools Alliance is advocating boards do. So school boards have to be open and co-operative with municipalities, but those same councils can do whatever the hell they want to screw their boards over? That's rich.
So is that why NOTL council is forcing the DSBN to waste money on an Ontario Municipal Board appeal over its preferred Virgil school site? Council is about to zone the property the board has identified residential, over the objections of the board and the community that wants, after the same review process that led to the NDSS decision, a new school.
Councillor Jack Lowrey voiced his concern with keeping the land residential, calling it the least appealing option financially. Lowrey said he believes the DSBN will take the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, requiring the Town to hire planners, since the town planners recommended it be zoned for a school, for a case he feels the Town would lose.
"When staff makes a recommendation, the judge weighs that very heavily. I want to make sure everyone at this table knows the kind of costs we would be looking at," he said. "I don't share any confidence that we're going to win this with the school board."
Chief Administrative Officer Don Smith said there has been dialogue between both parties and the DSBN is worried about the potential delay of going through an OMB hearing.
"They left me with the impression that they would be happy to talk to the Town in trying to settle this."
Gary Zalepa Jr. said he was glad to finally get some attention from the school board and he too is worried about financial implications, but took a different tack.
"I would like to know the financial implication of losing a number of residential lots where the school would be," he said. "[The DSBN] has failed on everything else in this town in regards to schooling. Let's stick with our original plan."
This is the worst kind of 'have my cake and eat it too' being put on display by town council. You put two members on the Alliance executive, go the minister complaining those meanies in the bully school board made a decision you don't like and then turn around and proceed to use that anger to screw the board over instead of working together with it on a separate school site? Council should be congratulated-- in a couple of strokes, it has managed to not only to overlook tending to the needs of students whose school will be closing at the end of this year, but also weakened the credibility of the Alliance by behaving as though its goals only apply when it serves its purposes.

NB: The advance did publish one more thing Friday, an opinion piece laying out the two situations and how town council is dealing with them.
Town councillors have so far maintained they want control over where a school can be located, and they want residential development on that Line 2 property. And some politicians are understandably angry at the board and not about to hand them anything on a platter. Rezoning that property would seem to be giving up on the possibility of a new high school and elementary school on the NDSS property, and nobody is giving up on anything just yet.
The two elementary schools deemed decrepit have served local children well for decades, and it seems will have to continue to do so until this battle is played out, either with a decision from the Ontario Municipal Board, a change of heart from town councillors, or school trustees giving taxpayers a break and building on the property they already own.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Full-day kindergarten = ECE shortage?

Michael Purvis at the Sault Star had this article published Thursday on the pending phase-in of full-day kindergarten in school boards across Ontario and one consequence some boards may have to deal with as a result. As readers here and elsewhere will know, the government has chosen to implement full-day kindergarten in a slightly different way than Charles Pascal had envisioned in his report, assigning a kindergarten teacher and early childhood educator to work with classes that could be as large as 26 students.
"There's going to be an opportunity, I guess, for early-childhood educators, we're just not sure they're here in sufficient numbers," said John Stadnyk, director of education for the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board, which plans to open four of the new full-day classes next September.
Stadnyk said agencies that employ ECEs in Sault Ste. Marie warned local boards that the hiring pool may not be large enough.
"They're indicating (ECEs) may be hard to come by in the northeast region, not only in the cities, but in the rural communities," said Stadnyk.
One would hope the government -- including Pascal -- had considered this before making and accepting the ECE component of the recommendation. Are there enough certified ECEs available to meet demand? Admittedly, some childcare centres will get smaller as their charges move to full-day schooling, creating opportunities for ECEs to shuffle from these childcare centres to school boards.
If there will be a shortage, perhaps it's time for the plethora of underemployed teachers' college graduates to consider enrolling in that ECE program. First, particularly if they're not already occasional teachers working in kindergarten classrooms, they might actually learn something about early childhood development that's not covered in teachers' college. Second, it might guarantee them a job, given I expect the continued impact of declining enrolment will again lead to many of the province's school boards to trim their elementary teaching ranks.
A college watching these developments would be wise to sharpen its pencil, head to the nearest teachers' college and work out some sort of condensed ECE program for teachers' college graduates.

Globe crosses into the homework debate

The Globe and Mail has published a few things this week on the great homework debate. First was Tuesday's article on a Calgary family with two lawyer parents who wrote and got the school to sign a homework contract. Subsequently, Wednesday's paper and online had a followup article on other parents who've taken similar steps to intervene with their children's homework workload.
Both articles include parents seemingly at wit's end and on the verge of tears, or speaking about their children being on the verge of tears due to the homework load.
From Tuesday:
“It was a constant homework battle every night,” Ms. (Shelli) Milley recalled. “It's hard to get a weeping child to take in math problems. They are tired. They shouldn't be working a second shift.”
It's not as if, the couple pointed out, they don't value education. They know firsthand the work involved in earning university degrees. But they wanted the academic work done at home to be on their terms, based on where they knew their children needed help. Brittany, for instance, was struggling with spelling, but “we never had any time to focus on that because she had so much homework,” Ms. Milley said.
And there were plenty of frustrating nights, she said, when her kids were so tired, “we'd stand over them, saying, ‘write this, write that.' ” If that's what families are doing, she asked, “how do the teachers even know whose work they are marking?"
The lead in this story held a pertinent piece of information -- speaking to how the family would rush their kids home from soccer and skating to then have to deal with homework. A nagging question arose when I considered the lead with the graphs I've quoted above-- could the Milley children be overprogrammed?
Similarly, from Wednesday's piece:
It never even gets that far for Shirley Munk. “I refuse to monitor, remind about, and schedule time for any homework for my elementary school child,” the Halifax health care worker says. Her daughter, who attends Grade 3 at a private school, makes good grades and talks about what she learns in school. Ms. Munk meets regularly with her teachers. But homework, spelling words included, “is not a part of our family life,” she says. “I don't see why 61/2 hours of formal schooling isn't enough for an eight-year-old.”
This issue got a lot of press (as these things usually go) in 2008 when the Toronto District School Board completed a review of its homework policies. Other boards across Ontario, and the Ministry of Education, either followed suit or were already in the midst of their own homework reviews. A general guideline used by many schools is 10 minutes per night, per grade. So a Grade 3 student would reasonably be expected to have 30 minutes of homework per school night, and so on.
This issue very quickly gets into topics of how as a society we're raising our children and what today's parents are expecting from their children and are doing to raise (or not raise) resilient children able to deal with workload, stress, failure, etc. Not having kids myself, I don't know where a parent strikes a balance between helping their kids with their homework, monitoring that it's being done versus crossing the line and doing it themselves or going to the extremes these families did when they felt the burden was overwhelming.
The comments on the Globe articles beautifully get into these issues-- give them a read if you have the time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Four reviews, two different approaches

A quad of accommodation review committee coverage Tuesday evening, from Welland, Huron County and Petrolia.
Welland's article was all about education-- teaching us and that community about the process that lies ahead and begins with the first few meetings.
Huron County's two reviews are a little more controversial-- there was coverage earlier in the fall I was unable to get around to posting here about on how municipal councils were opposed and one situation where council members appointed to the review withdrew because they didn't feel they could approach the situation independently. However, this too was a short article on process more than substance.
Far more interesting is the Petrolia review. The municipalities and communities requested the Lambton-Kent board conduct this review, realizing their schools and community needed to go through the process and search for some solutions.
And yet...
There were enough chairs for 200 people at Petrolia's Hillcrest School Thursday night, but only 25 were filled as the first accommodation review committee (ARC) meeting for Petrolia area schools was held.
"I'm kind of surprised there's not a lot more people sitting here right now," said Beth Wilcocks, a Grade 2 French immersion teacher at Hillcrest.
She said she's concerned about students' well-being at the school.
Kudos to Tyler Kula for noting this review is further complicated by a French immersion program review that impacts the review's schools, as well as the board's decision on where to place its first allotment of full-day kindergarten classes.

The role of a caring adult

Another coherent collection of related thoughts from the Education Writers Association seminar I attended last week in San Diego. At the first opportunity when we did our first high school visit, I was paired with Cindy Flores, a Grade 9 student at the School of International Business at the Kearney High Educational Complex.
Flores attended a larger middle school before applying for and choosing to attend the SIB at Kearney. The program interested her, and an older sibling attends one of the other schools at the Kearney campus. A reminder Kearney was a 2,000+ student composite high school now broken into four small schools. Each school has its own principal and its own dedicated staff who teach only within their school.
An important question for me to ask was how Flores was finding the social environment at SIB. In covering small-school reviews in Ontario, the importance of the peer group and the intimacy of knowing every peer in your grade cohort was frequently mentioned as a benefit of these 'small by nature' schools. I was curious as to how SIB students might see this given the vast array of middle schools these students are sourced from. The school isn't a 'zone' or neighbourhood school, meaning little to no opportunity to attend with the larger age-group cohort you may have started elementary school with.
Two months into her school year, Flores confirmed she didn't really know that many other people in her grade level. This despite there only being approximately 100 students in Grade 9 and the fact in her four courses this semester she would have an opportunity to be in at least one course with most of the students in her cohort (although I will note she was taking a Grade 10 French course).
The connection she had made, however, was with her advisory. At one point in the SIB tour we were ushered into a room full of students and the principal left so we could speak freely. Each of the four (including Flores) spoke very highly of the advisory and how this adult was the person keeping in touch, encouraging them to apply to bursaries and scholarships and doing the requisite followup if grades or attendance started to slip. The advisory was backed up by the principal, who demonstrated a knowledge of knowing every student's name.
Moving to Linlcoln High School later that day we were able to witness some of that same interaction. Lincoln's setup was more of a hybrid, where 'small learning communities' are the basis of each of the school's four campuses within a campus, led by two principals, two vice-principals and an executive principal. Joe Wiseman, vice-principal of the Science and Engineering Center, led the tour with two students, Xavier McGregor and Enrique Garcia. Again, we heard about this caring adult(s) making connections with students. Wiseman certainly knew and was keeping tabs on where everyone was going and supposed to be.

From EWA San Diego 2009

I specifically asked Wiseman whether he saw himself as an instructional leader, role-modeling and guiding teachers, or as that person connecting with students. He answered he saw his role as both and intertwined, that in providing instructional leadership to his teachers, he was connecting with students and vice-versa.
These visits allowed some important connections to concepts discussed in panels-- including one not so explicitly stated but that I've pulled out of the larger narrative: the importance of a caring adult to a student's success.
"How do we ensure every student is known and cared about?" Education Trust's Karin Chenoweth said in a Sunday panel titled, 'What big districts can learn from small schools.' "Who is hired to teach and assigned to which classes? How are teachers supervised?"
This is a concept I believe -- although the only person who disagreed during the entire seminar was Michael Klonsky -- can be picked up and implemented in any high school regardless of size with the right leadership in place and the right staff working in that team.
Further, though they're not directly comparable, an advisory isn't really that different from a student success teacher, mandated in 2005 and in place as part of Ontario's student success strategy since then. They're caring adults specifically tasked to connect with high school students who are at-risk of not successfully completing the first years of high school. In many schools, they're supplemented by guidance and vice-principals who take on many of the roles we saw on display at the schools we visited in the seminar.
Most importantly for my point in this post, they're in place at every high school in Ontario, regardless of size.

Bluewater survey report

Frequent commenter RetDir mentioned this in a comment on an earlier post-- the Bluewater District School Board Parent, Staff and Community Satisfaction survey has been posted as a PDF file on the board's website. The 91-page report is not for the faint of heart, however has a more digestible executive summary in its first pages.
I am reading through the report currently and may add to this post when complete. 
So far, I am struck by the common-sense nature of many of the comments in the executive summary. I would, as a skeptic, suspect if you were to do surveys of a similar size and scope at a number of other Ontario school boards you would find very similar results.
As RetDir mentioned, we're more comfortable with our classrooms, teachers and schools and the further away we get from that nucleus the less trust and understanding there is of who people are and what they do.
Despite any additional comments I may add here, the question now remains what the trustees will do with this information. What policies and procedures are they going to change as a result? Further and perhaps more importantly, how are they going to openly and obviously show that they've learned something since April and are working towards addressing the concerns raised from parents and staff? What things will they identify that haven't been done yet but need to be?
No doubt this report will make the rounds through either the Ministry of Education, the Council of Directors of Education (CODE) and/or the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, as this report has a lot to say about this board and by extension many others.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bluewater update No. 14

So soon after posting the last update, Maria Canton at the Sun Times posted a story late Monday that should make every trustee in the province take a second look at how their boards handle in-camera discussions regarding their employees. An Ontario Provincial Police investigation has been launched into the Bluewater District School Board over allegations trustees illegally met behind closed doors and discussed subject matter that should have been considered in an open, public meeting.
The Ontario Education Act permits confidential meetings when they might disclose "intimate, personal or financial information in respect to a member of the board or committee, an employee or prospective employee of the board or a pupil or his or her parents or guardians . . ."
(Peter) Ferguson argues that the board wrongly held all meetings regarding the superintendents involved in the plagiarism case behind closed doors because "the plagiarism activities of the subject employees are part of their professional lives and concern only their conduct while in the employ of the trustees."
What they fail to realize is the board could have also considered the discussions over the superintendents in question to have been negotiations with employees, which are also permitted in-camera. Canton also notes Ferguson is the person who took the plagiarism concerns all the way to the Ontario College of Teachers and was cut off by the board chair at a meeting earlier this fall where he started to speak about what he thought should be done with the superintendents in question.
This is a grey area, despite how black and white the text of the Act appears. When a board deals with disciplining its employees -- particularly given only one employee reports to it directly, the director of education -- there is enough legal space in the act and, I would suspect case law, to say these discussions qualify as "personal" information. While the alleged behaviour may be related to a person's public conduct as an official of the board, the censure as potentially meted out by trustees -- or rather, as board direction to the director of education for implementation -- isn't necessarily so. Most boards treat director of education reviews and evaluations as in-camera items, as these discussions and reviews deal with personal information.
I'm not a lawyer, but I've spent a lot of time this year looking into municipal in-camera meetings (whose rules aren't that different than what's in the Education Act in terms of appropriate subject matter) and there could be enough space here for the investigation to come up empty.
Or, as Ferguson alleges, the board could have gone too far-- and therefor should have done what to my knowledge would be the first board to ever publicly discuss and then censure its own employees. I'll be following the coverage here very closely as I've come to question my own public board's bylaw that allows a closed-door "caucus" meeting to be held at the call of the chair. Despite my routine coverage and ranting every time the board chose to hold these meetings, it garnered no public reaction and created no appetite for change.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Inspiring reporter quote

I was reviewing my notes from the Education Writers Association seminar last week as I frame some additional posts and tripped across this quote from Michael Klonsky of the Small Schools Workshop and Center for Innovative Schools.
"If you become a connoisseur of schools and education, you'll know a good teacher and a good school when you see one."
OK, I may have massaged the quote a little bit from the mess that is my notes from that day, but you get the general idea.

Bluewater update No. 13

A quick update on Bluewater District School Board activities-- as usual, a few days behind the Owen Sound Sun Times' Maria Canton and the folks over at MendEd.
Tuesday could be a good day in the district as the results of surveys with current and former parents, students and staff members are released and reviewed by the board of trustees.
"We haven't seen the survey results yet, but we are looking forward to finding out what the public has had to say," Jan Johnstone, vice-chairwoman of the Bluewater District School Board of trustees, said yesterday.
"I honestly don't think there'll be any surprise, but rather the results will provide us with an opportunity to again move forward. This is something we need to do annually, take the pulse of our community."
I'm curious as well, and will try and make a point of posting Canton's update as soon as the news alert crosses my desk and I have a spare moment. To my knowledge -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- the BDSB is the only one to have conducted this type of survey. It could say a lot, or very little, about perceptions of the board within the communities it serves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bottled-water hoo-ha

A frequent if anonymous tipster sent this along earlier today. Avon Maitland DSB is adding its name to the list of school boards moving away from bottled water. There are a number of other boards who've done this over the past several years and a few more who've considered it but not moved to a full ban or cessation on the sale of bottled water from schools.
Advocates for doing this in the school system note boards should be leading by example and that the practice of moving away from bottled water fits hand-in-glove with elements of the environmental education curriculum.
Critics note the sales of bottled water do generate school-based funding for those schools who have them. Bottled waters, juices, flavoured waters and milk products became the only options for vending machine drinks in elementary schools a number of years ago after the sale of pop was banned from these schools.
Here's my issues with stopping the sale of bottled water at schools-- and I say these as someone who never buys bottled water, preferring tap water.
We should be teaching students in the appropriate forums about the impact of bottled liquids. How the production of plastic affects the environment and how the money we all spend on municipal water (or well water available in schools) produces safe, clean, tested, drinkable water.
We should pressure boards to setup recycling programs that match or better the one run by the municipality the school is located in-- currently, within my county children can recycle more at home than they can at school.
However banning bottled water doesn't rid students of responsibility for the things most bottled-water critics hate most. Vendors will simply replace bottled water with flavoured waters (which are tap water with flavour added in most cases), vitamin waters (ditto) or a plethora of other non-pop drinks that still come in plastic containers. By banning bottled water you haven't reinforced the lesson of reduce, reuse, recycle, you've simply replaced one product in the machine with another.
Plus, as a trustee at another board noted when it was debating this issue, isn't it better when we arm our students with information and encourage them to make the right choice?

PFE on school closings

I was out-of-country when People for Education released its annual report on school closings. However, it's a significant report and issue, so here I am catching up to it almost a full week after it was initially released.
First, let me quibble with some of the data. Assembling this information on school closures, accommodation reviews and 'replacement' schools across 72 boards is challenging enough, and ensuring it remains current is also a challenge. There has to be a cutoff or the report would never get published with the constant changes taking place. That said, in a board I'm very familiar with, there are currently five reviews underway (two of which are now before trustees, with a few more not far behind), and these are not encapsulated in PFE's report. The number of replacement schools is also underreported. I also quibble with the chart on page 5 showing 5,000 students are needed to fund an educational assistant. If this is truly the case (I've not gone looking into the funding formula to verify) then how do boards manage to place at least one EA -- if not full-time then part-time -- in every school?
The focus on closures was the greatest foible of the reporting I was able to see on the report as well. Let's all focus on the number of schools closing and not provide the full context as to why, nor the context of what happens to the students in these closed / closing schools. Let's ignore the fact that in some cases, the replacement school -- though larger and perhaps not as local as its predecessors -- provides a vastly improved learning environment. Which is ridiculous, given the report is only 14 pages and actually includes some of this context on page 2.
Now as to the report's actual content?
PFE wants a review of the funding formula -- which was promised by 2010 (now 2011) by the government. It wants that review to re-align those elements of staffing and maintenance (etc.) still dependent on pupil populations reaching a certain threshold. From the report:
Before the review of funding, the Ministry of Education, in co-operation with Ministries such as Children and Youth Services, Health, Health Promotion and Municipal Affairs should:
  • examine research on optimal school size;
  • investigate the impact of a community hub model on things like overall health promotion, neighbourhood viability, youth violence and poverty reduction; and
  • develop policy and funding to support and promote integrated planning and schools as community hubs.
The school size one is interesting given my recent exploits. PFE suggests high schools in the 600-900 range, which per our definitions earlier this week would actually be "medium-sized" high schools. This is also a range where many boards are currently able to make high schools work under the current formula.
PFE is bang on when it says Ontario is falling behind on the development of community hubs in its schools. Where this hasn't occurred naturally due to geography or by intent due to construction in times where childcare or other services were integrated, we've fallen behind. The abandonment of any further expansion of the Best Start program after the federal government pulled its cash out of the initiative to fund measly childcare credits for families has put Ontario behind.
The report also fails to address how the recent "surge" in school closures is directly tied to the moratorium on closures requested by former minister Gerard Kennedy. That request, which virtually every board in Ontario complied with, created a backlog of issues -- school physical condition, population decline, etc. -- across every board that wasn't dealt with from December 2003 until well after the new guidelines were released in October 2006. Many boards also spent a lot of time (and money) subsequent to the release of those guidelines preparing capital plans. Kennedy said he was going to personally review each of these, but moved on to other pastures before most were even submitted. His successors at the ministry backed away from that commitment, making the capital plans working documents subject to continual change and approval from ministry staff members.
The end result was that it was at least another academic year after the guidelines were released before boards had their own internal policies and procedures prepared and aligned to begin tackling a backlog of school accommodation issues.
This as during this time many boards' largest grade cohorts began moving from elementary schools into high schools. The next four years will be even more telling as student population declines begin to stabilize in elementary but hit high schools hard and comparatively fast-- remember the declines had eight to 10 years to move through elementary schools. The impact will be felt in a four- or five-year time frame across high schools.
Is a review of the funding formula needed? Yes. It should be continually reviewed, with major updates every five years or so.
Does the province need a community hub policy and practice? Yes-- desperately.
Should all closures be abandoned until this is figured out? No-- this strategy has led us to where many boards have been in the past two academic years and another moratorium will only create more challenges than the closures it may actually prevent in the long term.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Small high schools -- Lincoln and High Tech High

Here's a slideshow of some of the photos I nabbed at the last two schools we visited in San Diego. I kept the camera in the bag at Kearney for some reason.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Small by design v. small by nature

One of my first awakenings at the Education Writers' Association small-high schools seminar earlier this week was a key difference for us to remember in Ontario. You can be a small school by design, or you can be a small school by nature.
All of the high schools -- a mix of public and public-charter -- we visited during the seminar were small by design. Meaning the district or the charter board purposely planned out the administrative, instructional and in two cases, physical design of the school to be small.
Look at Kearney High Educational Complex-- formerly a composite high school with approximately 2,000 students. It was closed and reorganized into four 'small' schools of 400 or so students. It includes the Construction Tech Academy (this site was loading very slowly...), the School of Digital Media and Design, the School of International Business and the School of Science, Connections and Technology. All schools have project-based (or, "experiential" as we might call it in Ontario) learning, advisories for students and other small-school concepts.
Similarly, at High Tech High, the first school and campus were purposely designed to have no more than 400-500 students, including the project-based learning and administrative and teacher organization to bring small-school concepts into play. These were replicated on the same campus as the first school with the High Tech High International and High Tech High Media Arts schools.
All of these schools are different from many of our small schools in Ontario, which are 'small by nature.' Our schools are small by nature mainly due to two factors:
  1. These are schools that, by geographic, financial or other circumstance, were built small. These are the campuses that physically were never meant to accommodate more than 400-600 students from the moment the foundation was poured and the walls started to rise. Other than this physical characteristic, there's nothing else that inherently exists in these schools from the small-school model.
  2. The other 'small by nature' school is the one that regardless of what physical size it was built to accommodate, has a small population due to the demographic changes of the past decade or so. Population shifts (from established to newer neighbourhoods, or through urban renewal) and our declining birth and fertility rates have created these 'small' schools.
So when, in accommodation reviews I've covered, or ones I've posted about here, advocates trot out the 'small schools' card and throw the small-school movement out as a reason why their 'small by nature' school should continue without changes, we need to be aware they're throwing dust into our eyes. For the most part, the small-school benefits have happened in these schools by circumstance, not through planned implementation. Some of the small-school concepts -- those not in place across district boards or the province (more on this in a subsequent post) -- used in the schools we visited in San Diego don't exist in 'small by nature' schools. Why? They're composite public high schools with small populations, not really 'small schools.'
We need to remain cognizant of that difference -- small by design v. small by nature. Each produces different schools and very different environments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Small-high school seminar

So the small-high school seminar I attended this week ended Tuesday afternoon and my brain is swimming in the things I've witnessed and discussed since Sunday. I will be going through my copious notes and drafting some posts to put up here as a result of attending this conference, as I doubt I would be given the space to write about the past three days in print.
As a sneak peek, I'd like to give you an idea of what we did and where we went here in sunny San Diego, thanks to the Education Writers Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-- one of the main movers and shakers in the small-school movement in the U.S.
  • Sunday was all about panels-- we heard perspectives from New York, Chicago and San Diego / L.A. from experts and researchers on how small high schools have been setup and what it is about them that works. We had some divergent opinions amongst our various panelists that I'll get into in subsequent posts.
  • Monday we travelled to Kearney High School campus, a public school in the San Diego Unified School District. The high school is one of three formerly "large" schools whose campuses were modified and now contains four "small schools" within the same physical space, a campus that houses approximately 2,000 students. We spent time in the School of International Business and the Construction Tech Academy.
  • Monday afternoon, we travelled to Lincoln High School, a large urban high school which closed for five years and then was re-opened four school years ago. It remains one large 2,400-student school administratively, but contains for small "learning community" campuses. All Grade 9s enter a social justice program, and then in Grade 10 attend one of three other campuses-- science and technology, arts or public safety.
  • Tuesday, we spent the morning and early afternoon at High Tech High, a publicly funded charter school located on former naval lands. The school has a mix of public and private-foundation funding, and contains three "small" high schools-- the original High Tech High, High Tech High International and High Tech High Media Arts. The campus we visited also contains a middle and elementary school campus.
For future purposes, the terminology here of "small" refers to schools of between 400-600 students per campus / administrative school division. We didn't actually visit a school campus where there was one standalone facility with 400-600 students, or, even, fewer than 400 students.
More on these schools and the sessions in the coming days as I review my notes and think of how to frame some posts. I did take some photos and even one video, which I'll embed as appropriate.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


One of the more frustrating things in life the last month or so has been the sheer and utter lack of time to post on as many things as I'd like to in this space. In the past week alone, I've had browser tabs open for a new K-12 school in Pembroke, a new homework policy unveiled by the Simcoe County District School Board and the continuing saga that is unfolding in Niagara-on-the-Lake-- where attributing devilish qualities and asking DSBN to "stay away," has become the new form of municipal-school board co-operation so heralded by the town's own council members on the Community Schools Alliance. I wonder if the other members of the alliance executive will follow this grand path of adding insult to injury after a board makes a disputed decision. Not to mention Studio2's time this week on early learning featuring Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, which I didn't have time to see yet would have liked to blog about here.
All things I wish I'd had more time for but haven't as most of my work blogging time has concentrated on my municipal politics blog, leaving precious little personal time for this space.


The blog is going on a short hiatus until at least Nov. 12.
I successfully applied for and received a fellowship to attend an Education Writers Association seminar in San Diego, Cal., titled "Small Schools and High School Reform: Shrinking Size, Diminishing Returns?" I am grateful for the opportunity and rather excited to spend two days in the company of about a dozen U.S. education reporters talking about small-school models and why they do and don't work and how to cover them as a journalist.
Some of the insight I gain will hopefully show itself through posts in this space as well as in my reporting through my full-time gig.
It does mean no posts for the coming days however. I may be able to tweet from a few of the venues, but won't make any guarantees.
Please check back after Nov. 12 for new posts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bill 177 committee stuff available

Just a quick post to indicate the transcripts from the Ontario Legislature's standing committee on social policy's two days of hearings on Bill 177 are up on the legislature's website. I had wanted to wait a few days after the Oct. 26 and 27 meeting dates because usually it takes a few days for the committee staff to post the Hansard transcripts of the hearings at the committee level.
Looking quickly at those who spoke, it drew the expected crowd of trustees' association, trustees, parents' groups and other interested parties.
The Oct. 26 transcript is here— HTML or PDF, with the Oct. 27 transcript here— HTML or PDF.
I have not had time to read through the transcripts, but did note the committee will do clause-by-clause examination of Bill 177 on Nov. 16. A few days afterward I will again post a couple hundred words with a link to the transcript.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Getting into Toronto ARCs

A frequent if anonymous tipster passed this along earlier today-- it ran in a weekly in the GTA, and is also posted at the Campaign for Public Education's website. Haven't heard of the CPE? Its member organizations are listed here. From a quick scan of the site, it appears the CPE has been somewhat dormant of late-- its blog has only two posts from within the past year. Its media contact list for the GTA contains several incorrect names. For example, Tess Kalinowski hasn't been the education reporter at the Star for... almost two years? If not longer.
Having said all that, the CPE is obviously choosing to wade into the eight reviews launched in the Toronto District School Board. From the ad:
The TDSB’s public consultation meetings downplay the negative impact of school closure on  students, adult learners and the community as a whole. The meetings are designed to limit discussion of the benefits of keeping existing schools open and finding ways to improve them.
To pave the way for closing schools with low enrolment, the TDSB is pushing mega-schools — despite decades of positive experience with smaller schools.
This ad only shows the CPE's own misunderstanding of the accommodation review process and how it's supposed to work. It presumes the best interests of Toronto and all its students is to keep every building open forever, with the fiscal backing to invest in all of them. It also neglects to tell you that Toronto's decades of experience with small schools happened because the city had the richest corporate, industrial and commercial assessment base in the province. A taxed assessment which was to the Toronto (public) boards' sole benefit until 1998, and allowed it to have facilities, school sizes and programs assessment-poorer parts of the province could only dream about. Since 1998, these dozens of schools maintained by the TDSB that fall outside the funding formula have been sustained by year after year of provincial subsidy above and beyond what other boards were able to get, given by successive governments too afraid to tackle the behemoth of a board the government of the day created.
There are tough choices to be made in Toronto. Kudos to the CPE for stepping forward and adding its voice to the fray-- its opinions need to be heard.
However, its input would be most productive if it quickly learns to abandon the status quo, become a real contributor to review committee work (not just complain and lob insults from the sidelines) and contributes the options and solutions it claims won't be developed for consideration by trustees.
If this first ad is any indication, I don't think we'll see that from the CPE. It's unfortunate.

MacDonald on T.O. reviews

TorSun's Moira MacDonald weighs in on the Toronto District School Board reviews today, with a cleverly titled opinion piece. She provides several hypotheses on what is behind the selection of the 25 schools and eight review committees now struck at the board.
Why were these eight areas -- encompassing 35 schools -- chosen for the first round? Number one: trustee buy-in.
"The (trustees) around the table were the people who were willing to engage in the process," trustee Howard Goodman told me, adding this would not have included trustees "philosophically deadset against closing schools." The old city of Toronto is noticeably underrepresented while outer reaches of the city -- like Scarborough -- are overrepresented. Also absent are schools with some of the lowest enrolments going.
Reason number two for why these schools first: Community interest.
Scarborough trustee Scott Harrison told me Cedarbrook Junior Public School was a school "I was pushing (for a review) because the community wanted it." Cedarbrook only goes up to Grade 6 and is just over half full. Parents would like to see their children staying at the school until Grade 8. That cuts down on the number of school changes kids have to make during their school career. It also adds more kids, good if enrolment is falling -- and is the model the TDSB wants across the city.
In addition, MacDonald mentions bums-in-seats / enrolment as well as facility reasons in the final graphs of the column.
Perhaps my comment on an earlier post will be proven wrong and we'll see some enlightened reporting, opinion and analysis from T.O. media on the reviews as they get underway and chew through the process. MacDonald's piece today certainly is a nice addition.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Toronto ARC coverage ramps up

Caught this in a news alert earlier this week, regarding the various school communities in the Toronto District School Board getting ready for the accommodation reviews that are about to begin looking at the future of 37 schools in the city. The Globe and Mail posted this Monday, accompanied by an opinion piece by Marcus Gee.
As I've posted here before, it's about freakin' time Toronto starts looking at its enrolment v. capacity. It continues to have the highest percentage of empty space in its schools in all of Ontario, but has been coddled over the years as its trustees refused to engage the issue. From the article:
Don Higgins, TDSB executive officer of business services, says the board is faced with few financial alternatives: As enrolment drops and per-child funding sinks with it, the board finds itself covering the pricey operating cost of its facilities by slicing other budget areas.
“People will argue a small school is a good school but it's just sheer numbers. The ministry could open the funding model and start funding on a more expansive basis, but that's not going to happen.”
Junior/Senior Kindergarten class at Diefenbaker Elementary School in Toronto.
The TDSB has long been cited as the city's largest property-holder, and if it does choose to close schools, selling the property they stand on could be extremely lucrative.
School closures are sometimes a necessary evil, says Annie Kidder, executive director of the People for Education advocacy group. But they're often indicative of skewed funding formulas more than a decade out of date with student needs.
“There's a possibility that some of the schools that are going to close over the next couple of years maybe could have stayed open if we didn't have this disconnect.”

This will be, as I've said before, instructive. Toronto communities will start to experience what the rest of the province has spent the last two school years living, and the rest of us will be reminded that small and rural schools don't have an exclusive claim to the community that exists in every school. Every school closure, regardless of size, location, urban/rural etc. is one that affects communities-- the key is ensuring the positives of closure, consolidation, renovation, expansion and modernization outweigh the costs of closure.
This could be a real opportunity for the TDSB and its communities to begin revitalizing their facilities and programs and bring as many school learning environments as possible into this century. Let's hope that goal remains in sight.

All options expire for NDSS

I've been delinquent in posting here this week for a variety of reasons I won't spend a lot of time discussing. There are only so many hours in a day.
However, Oct. 30 was the calendar date by which Niagara District Secondary School in Niagara-on-the-Lake needed to have 350 registered pupils in order to avoid closure at the end of the 2009-10 year. Tiffany Mayer has been on the NDSS story at the St. Catharines Standard since the departure of Samantha Craggs last December, and published a fantastic article Saturday. This is extraordinarily good reporting from Mayer, showing the depth and context that only good newspaper journalism can do. She covered all the bases, speaking to trustees (for and against allowing the June 2008 motion to stand), community activists, the Lord Mayor and even students at NDSS.
But (District School Board of Niagara) education director Warren Hoshizaki said the board did what it could for the beleaguered secondary school.
"Because the results were not as they would have liked -- as we would have liked -- I think we forget how much work that (superintendent) John Stainsby and the transition committee have really done to try to boost the enrolment in that school. We worked a long time with them," Hoshizaki said.
There were also brainstorming sessions between trustees and town councillors to find solutions.An international baccalaureate program, golf academy, football and agriculture courses were added or were in the works when NDSS's last lifeline ran out this week. None were able to produce results in time for today, though many lobbied for an enrolment target deadline extension to give them a chance to flourish.
The odds just weren't in NDSS's favour, Hoshizaki noted.
Half of Grade 8 students in the community opt to go elsewhere for high school -- an anomaly, he said.
So is this really it for NDSS?
"Yup," trustee Dalton Clark said, even before the question was out. "I think we have to move on and start giving kids a quality eduction."
Often accused by NDSS supporters of being the ring leader of trustees who voted to spike any chance of NDSS's survival, Clark's conviction isn't necessarily arbitrary.
The board's projected enrolment for the next five years paints a grim picture. NDSS is expected to have only 203 students by 2014 -- not enough to offer a solid range of programming, the board maintains.
At the moment, the town's elementary schools have 276 students in junior kindergarten to Grade 2. Come high school, they would be divided up between NDSS, the Catholic board and Eden, board spokesman Brett Sweeney said.
Had the new program additions shown any sign of boosting the population, Clark said he would have considered that.
"I just based my vote on the fact that, in spite of all of the efforts of the community and the fact that courtesy busing has been taken away, that the enrolment dropped anyway. I don't see any way the school could ever get back to being a viable operation," Clark said. "And in the meantime, every year that we put it off, 200-plus kids are underserved by our board."
The key figure there? The JK-2 student population in the catchment area. The first of those students is only six years away from Grade 9, and if they follow the pattern of current Grade 8 students, not enough of them will choose NDSS to keep the programs and facility viable. The comment section at the end of the story says it right, when the poster indicates all the families and parents who chose other schools over NDSS over the past decade share responsibility in this outcome as well. It's an important point that shouldn't be forgotten.
The community should be commended for its efforts. Now it needs to focus on continuing to participate in the discussions between now and September 2010. It needs to keep playing a part in ensuring its students are welcomed in their receiving schools and that the program and facility advantages they couldn't access at NDSS exist for them elsewhere.
However, this and other similar-population high schools should take note. Don't wait for the accommodation review to begin to start working on program options and other enticements to boost student enrolment at your school. If you're an English-language, public high school in southern Ontario and your student population in Grades 9-12 is nearing between 300 and 400 students, it's time to start working on those things now. Not tomorrow, not next year. Now. Now's the time to start talking to the local municipality and other public-sector groups who might be able to lease vacant space in the facility. Now's the time to start searching for partnership opportunities that can enhance programming and facility at the school.
If you choose to wait for another day, it might be too late.