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.


Anonymous said...

Gee ER, you don't suppose this community might benefit from a satisfaction survey do you? I know where they might be able to find one:-)

You're right. It makes everyone look bad and students the last consideration.


Sandy said...

Hugo, C.C. let me know about your post today. You may be interested in a comment I wrote on my own blog here:

Education Reporter said...

CC-- something tells me a satisfaction or any other survey in NOTL would be pretty predictable right now. As would one for the Virgil community.

Sandy-- thanks for the link. I'd read that on earlier posts at your blog. Glad to see you returned from hiatus. :)


Anonymous said...

Here's an idea.

If the municipality thinks it can do a better job of educating their children then perhaps they should be lobbying to buy the school in question themselves? There wouldn't be a need for a school board if the province dealt directly with the municipality would it?

I did take a look at Sandy's blog and have one question for him/her. Why didn't you volunteer to be part of the ARC? You seem to have lots of experience with the issue.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 11:56am - You're kidding right?

Turning education over to municipal government's to run would be a fate worse than death. Not hearing a great deal form Reycraft's group of late.

Here's a tidbit for you ER - did you know that Reycraft used to work for Sean Conway when he was
education minister under the Peterson Liberals? Small world, isn't it?

To be fair though boards have also been accused of thinking only of the bottom line too.


Education Reporter said...

Education was the purvue of municipalities in Ontario until 1969 when the county boards were created. Every city, town and township had its own public board, and there were some separate boards as well where population permitted.

Some municipalities did well with this. Others were cheap, cheap, cheap penny pinchers with little interest in either quality facilities, staffing or curriculum.

Even post-69, when the property tax levy was a locally controlled funder of education, some had riches and others survived on rags.

Look south if you want to see where we could be if we still had full municipal control. Some great stories, including ones better than we ever see here. However, a whole heck of a lot more stories that make you shake your head.

Given its own statements and actions, NOTL would bleed every town school dry (or significantly raise the levy) to support NDSS. Is that fair?


Anonymous said...

I have a relative looking for a new home in the Virgil area of Niagara and in speaking with the relative yesterday he said that the real estate folks who toured him around yesterday are still promoting that area with no schools closing. They feel that the municipality will win their case.

I sent my relative the links you provided for updates and so they might raise questions before they buy.


Education Reporter said...

Real estate agents will say whatever they feel they have to in order to sell.

Thames Valley was basically forced to pay millions more than it should have for a school site in north London recently— the developer had kept the school site aside as requested by the municipality, then the real estate folks sold the entire subdivision, always promising, "Hey! There'll be a brand-new school, right over *there.*" When the board was ready to build, the best site and the one all the parents screamed and yelled for was the one the developer then held for ransom.

This will be an OMB case that will be watched by many across the province as it will basically rule on whether / when and who has the right to decide where schools should physically be built.


Niagara Peach said...

It's great to see a discussion on Niagara's situation, however I think this blog has historically missed the entire story here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The story relates to the DSBN's historical decisions to offer alternative programming to NOTL students in disproporitionate rates to other communities. FOI's have shown that NOTL participation in "alternative" programming approaching 60% of the secondary school aged population. This is convenient for the DSBN - it fills city schools. Issue two though is one much more dangerous - the continued offering of religiously themed education at Eden High School in St. Catharines to NOTL (and other) kids. I won't even get started on that one - it has no place in contemporary Ontario.

Proud of NOTL & Council

Education Reporter said...

Niagara Peach:
I'm 250+ km away and dependent on interpreting media reports, so there's no way I could cover all the bases as you've mentioned.

That said, if the DSBN was really offering out-of-town alt ed choices in higher proportions to NOTL students, was it also putting a gun to their heads to enroll in these programs? Students and families vote with their feet and one of the basic challenges for NDSS is that too many of these students and parents have chosen to go to another high school. 700 eligible students, only 250 of which attend NDSS. I have been pretty consistent on this blog in asking WHY, WHY, WHY? The alt ed is only half the answer-- the board can offer as many programs as it wants, but if people had chosen to stay in town and at NDSS instead of opting out, would the school be in the predicament it is now?

As to Eden, please convince me you were saying that 10 and 20 years ago when the school was first merged into the public board. Please convince me Eden hasn't just become the devil now because NDSS is closing. Your comment doesn't convince me of this. Further, it also appears to be based on the assumption those students at Eden would have attended NDSS, which is no certainty.


Niagara Peach said...

I'm glad to bring some additional perspective to the table.

The proverbial "gun to the head" was the lack of investment in the infrastructure of the school, and the board's inattentiveness to undertaking the 1st ARC process recommendations to mothball half of the school and right-size it. The figures don't lie - the participation rates in alternative programs are anomalous - they're significantly higher than any Niagara community.

Why why why is there participation in alternative programming at such levels? 1) lack of investment in infrastructure and 2) the offering of alternative programming at unusual rates and 3) the offering of a Christian high school funded through the public system.

As to Eden (and I could go on all day about this) I actually was saying this 20 years ago. I graduated at the same time this school was amalgamated - it's origins are only 200 metres down the highway from NDSS. The Eden kids came to our school for grade 13 and played on our sports teams. It was a nice time for kids in our community - it worked out really well.

Unfortunately I believe these folks at Eden were manipulated by the (then) Lincoln County Board of Education to relocate to St. Catharines when their school enrolment dwindled. Apparently the principal of NDSS didn't want the Eden kids - this is the local lore from Eden folks - but the Board refuses to provide any alternative rationale. That can't possibly be rationale for such a decision, can it?

In reality, a case can be made the school board actively wanted Eden in St. Catharines - to boost enrolment at Grantham High School. It's a long story, but that may have been to keep it viable in light of the co-terminus board's expansion in the early 1990's. No luck with the school board with that plan. The separate school board took over Grantham which then became Holy Cross. The Eden kids were displaced for at least 5 years, maybe 7 to Scottlea public school. This was not the plan to educate high school students in an elementary facility, but it bridged the gap between their old home and new in what is now Lakeport.

There's a lot of history the media does not seem to want to touch here. My parents were both teachers so I am close to this issue, and have heard a lot about it for the past 30 years.

There is a value associated with educating kids in their communities. I find it ironic we need to make this point repeatedly without it being recognized that the DSBN has choices here - it's just exercising the wrong ones.

Education Reporter said...

Niagara Peach:
I'm not with you yet on Eden though-- if the investment had occurred in NDSS and Eden had been wiped out, it doesn't seem to me these families would have chosen the "secular" system. Particularly for high school, where there's been open choice since the Harris years, those families would choose the 'second-best' option of a Catholic school over a secular school.

Second for all the value associated with being educated in your own corner of the world (I agree with you here, I really do), was the 'lack of investment' such that parents and students would overlook this and ignore it in choosing out-of-town programs? As mentioned, people vote with their feet-- if they want something they can't get locally, they'll go find it somewhere else. The same holds true for education-- my recent seminar was a great show of this as each small (by design, not by nature) school had students travelling great distances to attend that particular program.

As to other points-- mothballing a wing vs. tearing it right down. The only way to erase the OTG is to tear it down (see Delhi District Secondary School, which still, has more students than NDSS) permanently. I'll note that even DDSS provides a bus to Simcoe for Gr.11/12 credits not offered in Delhi due to cohort sizes.

As to investment-- with limited circumstances (at a time where closing schools was a great way to create the new-pupil places you wanted to build where you needed to), show me any public board that was piling money into capital in the mid-to-late 1990s. I can't say with certainty this did or didn't happen (or should or shouldn't have) at NDSS, but where this argument has been used elsewhere it's often wrong.

The point at the end of all this? School boards have the decisions at their feet. They are supposed to review all the relevant information, and it appears this was done in NOTL (note, I have read all the stuff that went before the ARC, and a lot of media coverage on this). Then, they have to make that decision.

DSBN made a decision. When is it time to accept that decision has been made? The fact you don't like the decision and vehemently disagree with it doesn't change the fact it's done.

My concern is the opposition is leading people to ignore the decision has been made. The consequences of that could be worse than the decision itself.


Anonymous said...

Niagara Peach

The media has touched those angles. As someone who has kept up with the debate since early 2008, the courtesy busing, the Eden factor, everything you mentioned has been covered ad nauseum in all the papers here in the past two years. The truth is, people are getting sick of reading about NDSS. And it seems school supporters, who want to blame everyone else but their own community for the school not having enough students, is now adding someone else to the list of bad guys; the media. Please. School supporters and their beefs with the board have had lots of coverage, too much really.

Good blog ER!

Niagara Peach said...

I agree this is a good blog ER, and I agree with points made to some extent but still maintain my beliefs as stated above.

In NOTL we can't ignore the reality that there has been a plan afoot to move education from our community elsewhere for decades. This is even occurring with our elementary kids in the co-terminus board, with a proposal to send a significant number of these children to Niagara Falls.

Enough's enough already. Our taxes are already subsidizing city schools - our children don't need to pay the further price of filling empty seats in those as well.

As for Eden - I can't really think of any justification to continue to operate a school that verges on being illegal, and likely is. The former Lincoln County Board should be ashamed for ever having set the place up. Church and State - whether I agree with it or not, there's a rationale for the existence of the Catholic Board in Ontario - I can't imagine any reasonable argument to operate Eden though.

All the best - we'll keep on plugging along in NOTL for as long as it takes...