Monday, July 26, 2010

Another possible judicial review

This came across the news alerts the other day, on municipal support from Huron East to possibly help bankroll a judicial review of the closure of Brussels Public School.
"We made it very clear that we don't want to do this as a stalling tactic," (Brussells resident Charlie Hoy) said.
Seaforth Coun. Joe Steffler said the issue of school closures is going to have a big economic effect on all the municipalities of Huron County.
"These small schools are in our small towns and families don't want to be where the school aren't. Let's support one another here and if it takes an appeal, that's what it takes. We can file and then see if the odds are stacked against you," he said.
Hoy pointed out that the Huron-Perth Catholic school board has schools with very small enrolments but chooses to keep them open.
"We both get money from the same dad so something's not right," he said.
Since an appeal must be launched within 30 days of the closure decision, council decided to hear current information about the grounds for the appeal in closed session with the expectation that Hoy and Prior would return to the next council meeting with more information two days before the deadline.
McKillop Coun. Bill Siemon pointed out that council could at that point decide not to support the appeal if councillors didn't believe the arguments to launch the appeal were strong enough.
Is this another gamble?
I would quibble with a few things in this article-- for example, reading this, I can't tell whether the community has already petitioned for an administrative review of the Avon Maitland District School Board decision. It doesn't appear so, in which case the court may simply rule that the community should proceed to do so before it appears before the court again.
I also quibble with Hoy's statement-- the Huron-Perth Catholic board and the AMDSB is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Without knowing the particulars, I would bet Timmy's on the fact the HPCDSB is smaller, period, and has fewer schools, period. Therefor it likely qualifies for supported-schools allocations the AMDSB doesn't. Plus, as some of my coverage area is now learning first-hand, even the HPCDSB can't stall the inevitable forever if it's running really small schools (ie: <90FTE, JK-8).
My municipal reporting bones also ache with the mention council would consider its next steps in-camera. Council certainly has the right to consult its solicitor and receive advice from solicitors behind closed doors (as any other client has the right to not breach solicitor-client privilege), however if Hoy and Prior are able to be in attendance, then the doors should be open to the whole community.
If this proceeds to judicial review, it would make two underway within the province.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

CUPE first out of the gate?

It's been well over a month since I looked in on this last, but it appears the Canadian Union of Public Employees is first out of the gate in the last several weeks in actually signing deals with school boards for collective agreements for full-day kindergarten early childhood educators (ECEs).
A Google Alert brought my eye to a Friday release on the conclusion of an agreement with one of the two boards I cover. A quick search of CUPE's news releases shows a similar agreement with the French-language Catholic school board for southwestern Ontario (odd, since it has had full-day kindergarten for years now), also released Friday, along with an earlier release on an agreement with the Upper Canada District School Board.
This compares to a continued sales pitch over at the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, where its ECE website is only full of releases telling ECEs why they should become ETFO members and slamming other federations.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation has its own ECE sales pitch website, where it too seems apt to throw stones at ETFO rather than post anything prominent about having actually signed any agreements with district school boards. OSSTF was invited to the provincial discussion table on ECEs, claiming victory for its work, but again there is scant to no news release on it either representing ECEs with a school board or having come to an actual agreement.
The 20% increase in pay claim is well, ironic, isn't it? While not the leading reason, it's these increases that pushed boards to the point where many (if not all) couldn't offer extended-day components of full-day kindergarten at a reasonable enough cost for parents to sign up en masse. Most boards would never admit that, saying the use of the regulation was due to poor parental interest in the program and/or low registration. I remain curious to hear the number of school boards that have used the regulation to get out of offering extended-day programs themselves and continue allowing third-party partners (who pay their ECEs less, no doubt) to run these programs for the next two school years.
It's always been a curiosity of mine to see what the battle for ECEs at school boards would look like, and it turns out it's been as interesting as expected. The government invited those unions with experience in working with ECEs to the table (freezing out ETFO and who knows who else), and the union with perhaps the most experience, period, is the first to come out and announce agreements.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Do away with school boards?

Caught a tweet on this one today, a Globe and Mail article by Kate Hammer asking the question on whether school boards should be shut down by the provincial ministries that oversee them.
The In Focus piece looks at a number of different perspectives, covering the evolution / devolution of school-board responsibilities in Ontario over the past 15 years, the complete dissolution of school boards in New Brunswick (and their return, sort of), the mayoral-control model advocated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and perspectives from Vancouver and Quebec.
“We used to have some local taxation authority, which has been lost to the province. We used to bargain more locally with our employee groups, and the bulk of that has now gone to the provincial level,” says Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board.
The last role left for trustees is that of advocate, but a new law in Ontario blocks trustees from publicly criticizing board decisions, and the Vancouver School Board's trustees nearly risked their jobs taking a stand this summer against British Columbia's Ministry of Education over funding.
Looking to international models, critics argue that eliminating school boards would generate millions of dollars of savings each year in every province, and remove a layer of bureaucratic red tape.
“School boards and trustees are in the midst of an evolutionary process,” says Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow. “Ours is far from a functioning model.”
Mr. Matlow says he believes that boards should be swallowed by local government. But would we be throwing the babies out with the school boards?
I can't effectively speak to what's been happening outside this province, but I think there's still plenty of space, time and opportunity for effective local school boards to run publicly funded education in this province. Even with the move from Bill 177 to continue a process that turns school boards and trustees into something more akin to a corporate board of directors, a good trustee who understands that and a good board can still exert significant local flavour into how they work with provincial dollars and directives.
Though provincial funding is shaping the size and composition of new school construction, and ministry oversight exists on the general location, it's still a local board of trustees that finalizes a site selection, architectural design and the name of the school. On the flip side, though there's a lot of the ministry in the school-closure process, the province has maintained a steadfast line on not overruling these local decisions— even when the people making them locally feel they were channeled down that path by the province.
There's a balance to be struck between local and provincial control over schools. Are we there yet in this province? Great question, perhaps solved over a beverage or two with others who might see differently than I. What I do struggle with however is saying there's a trend afoot to kill off school boards altogether, given only one province has done so.
H/T Paul, who RT'd it earlier today.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The trend of the future?

I was already aware of this particular project, from the time when the Ministry of Education announced the construction grant to make it a reality. The Renfrew County District School Board broke ground this week on construction and renovations in Deep River that will see the board's first JK-12 school (and also, interestingly but not surprisingly, its first new construction in over 10 years).
"This will be the board's first JK-12 facility in Renfrew County and we want this to be done right," added (board chair Roy) Reiche.
The plan will see Mackenzie High School converted into a junior kindergarten to Grade 12 school and students from Morison Public School moving in for the 2011-2012 school year. The project will be done in stages with modifications being done to the existing structure while students will continue to attend classes, Mr. Reiche noted.
Last year, the ministry announced $4,876,588 under the province's Energy Efficiency Program for one capital project to address the accommodation needs of students at Morison Public School in Deep River. The ministry stipulated, however, that the project had to be completed no later than the 2011-2012 school year. 
Once the domain of even smaller or far more remote communities, I'm fairly certain the construction of JK-12 schools in smaller communities will increasingly become a reality across parts of southern Ontario that haven't seen this sort of school organization since the abandonment of the one- and two-room schools in the 1950s and 1960s. It will become an increasingly preferred setup, first, likely, to the French-language boards whose populations outside of some pockets of geography in Ontario are quite spread out. We have such a JK-12 facility in my coverage area that's currently under construction and will open to JK-12 students starting at the turn of the year, with the last desk moved in by the start of second semester in 2011.
It's a dramatic change for the several generations of parents and grandparents who've experienced other school organizational structures, be it JK-8 and 9-12 or JK-5, 6-8, 9-12 or other models used across Ontario over the years.
However, it allows boards to upgrade facilities and bring together students and staff into more manageable and efficient groupings. In some areas, depending on historical politics between boards, this could become an option preferred over twinning schools with a coterminous school board.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Throwing NDSS' future to the court

The jaw did drop, honestly, when this news alert from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Advance crossed the inbox this afternoon. The Niagara District Secondary School supporters are petitioning the Ontario Superior Court of Justice's divisional court to conduct a judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the high school. The school closed its doors two weeks ago.
They have hired a Toronto lawyer and filed an affidavit outlining "many unaccountable and unacceptable actions" by the DSBN going back a decade—actions which have led to the closure of Niagara on the Lake's only secondary school, said spokesperson Sandra Cowan.
It was an unwillingness to communicate, on the part of the school board and the ministry, that led to the launching of a legal battle, said Cowan.
None of the information in the affidavit filed with the request for a review is new, she said—it was all in the brief the town compiled and sent to the Minister of Education.
"Some of it deals with points of order and the procedures of voting—the points trustee Gary Atamanyk has been making. Also it brings attention to some of the actions of the school board over the last 10 years and the indications that the closure of NDSS had been predetermined before the last accommodation review took place."
Cowan is quoted later in the article explaining that yes, while the school closed at the end of June, this request is to preserve the presence of a high school in NOTL for future students.
I struggle to understand this decision. Though it's been a while since I did so, I spent some time reviewing the decisions of the divisional court on school closures that are available online (not all are published online). I read the decisions regarding Arthur District High School / Upper Grand DSB (court did not overturn closure); Lynden Public School / Hamilton-Wentworth DSB (court did not overturn closure); and Seaforth-area schools / Avon Maitland DSB (request for interim relief from closure not granted). Within each of these decisions there are several other cases cited but not online where boards made decisions where the court ruled either no public input of any kind took place, or that a decision was made in secret outside the public eye.
I am also aware of a local case in my coverage area, not posted online, where the community took the Thames Valley District School Board to the divisional court over its decision to close two schools in Woodstock. The court sided with the board, providing a former executive superintendent of operations the motivation to continually remind anyone who cared to listen (until the Gerard Kennedy requested school-closure moratorium) that the board's accommodation review process was "court-tested."
The current first line of appeal, such as it is, is for the appointment of an administrative review of a board's decision (which was announced for NDSS in October 2008 and completed in February 2009). These reviews, as flawed as some say they are, concentrate on whether or not the school board was compliant with the provincial guidelines (in NDSS' case, the original 2006 ones) and its own locally developed pupil accommodation policy.
I would think asking the court to review this element would be a moot point, since Joan Green already determined that to be the case. If the intent is to get the court to rule on the rat's nest of motions, amendments, etc. from the June 2008 meeting where the decision was made to grant NDSS until Oct. 31, 2009 to reach 350 bodies, that might be a different case. Care needs to be taken with explaining this to the community-- it's a judicial review of what's been done, not necessarily an opportunity to present evidence not heard in the past, or to take another stab at arguing the merits of the DSBN's decision. The decision in the Seaforth review (and in milder language in the others) is quite clear it's not the court's intent to rule on the merits of keeping the school open or letting it close. The court's role is to review whether there was an abuse of process.
I have serious doubts the community will succeed in this measure (though, no worries, I will eat crow in this space if that's the case).
Meanwhile, as the article mentions, NDSS' current students have made their choices for the fall. They'll be at those schools starting in September.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

LFP folo on school-fundraising series

I've been remiss in posting about a followup on the London Free Press' year-long series on fundraising and how many dollars families send to school with their children. The family tallies were published earlier, but last week as the school year was ending Jen O'Brien snagged proposed guidelines and also an interview with Minister Leona Dombrowsky. Article one was the one with the minister, and it was accompanied in print and online by a streeter of sorts with students.
The LFP editorial position on this whole shebang is that no fee is a good fee, and that the Grants for Student Needs and other provincial funding should cover everything. This is a position that has a lot of support.
The guidelines, from my read, attempt to ask boards to make a nuanced distinction between not charging for things like textbooks (although, a refundable textbook deposit— is that a fee?) needed to pass a high school credit and a yearbook fee.
It also encourages boards to have alternatives in place so that students whose families cannot pay are not excluded as a result of an inability to pay (or perhaps, a refusal— I remember when young my parents refused to sell chocolate bars).
I tend to be more nuanced. If kids are to take no money to school for anything, then we shouldn't expect or ask schools to do things like hot dog days, or pizza days. We should stop schools from becoming home-base for charitable causes like the Terry Fox Run, 30-hour famines and disaster-response campaigns such as the 2004 tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake. As to field trips, forget about them. No more bused daytrips to the outdoor education centre, or to the museum. No end-of-year trips to overnight at a outdoor centre / camp. No trips to Toronto, Ottawa or Quebec City.
None of these things could be defined as "essential" for a student's education, but anyone with some experience in educating children knows how these experiences can enhance classroom-based learning an add to what a student learns. Just the same way that fundraising for charitable causes is an important way of putting theory into practice on various social-justice initiatives.
Is a SMART board essential for learning? Should it be ministry funded or fundraised? I think ministry funded, but if that's the case it won't happen as quickly as some parents want, so they fundraise for it.
All the money for all these things flows through a school-based account and gets reported as school-generated funding.
Hopefully these guidelines will moderate some of the more extreme fees that have cropped up in some schools for students to be able to access items that are a core part of the curriculum. Hopefully, they don't start cutting off the other things whose dollars flow through school bank accounts and end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Extended budget deadlines

A confirmation last week from a Ministry of Education official that the traditional end-of-June budget deadline for school boards has been extended to the end of July.
I had asked the question after attending a board meeting where a budget vote was postponed post-June 30 and I was told by the director of education of the new deadline. Ministry communications staffer confirmed it later in the week-- due, apparently, to the new budgeting provisions that come into effect in the 2010-11 school year, such as Public Sector Accounting Board standards and the confusing 1% rule, boards are being given until the end of July to ratify and submit their 2010-11 budgets.
I can't imagine there are that many who'll wait that long. Well, I can't imagine there are trustees who've waited that long-- they may have ratified and then left it to staff members to complete all the paperwork and submit to the ministry some time between the end of June and the end of July.

Friday, July 2, 2010

VE65 - video playlist - Groesbeek & Holten

If I had been able to properly edit and upload video while in the Netherlands, this is sort of what some of them would have looked like.

Groesbeek, May 3

Holten, May 4

Is anyone doing before- and after-school care?

I've been left pondering whether there is a school board in Ontario that is offering the complete full-day kindergarten program as it was originally intended by the Ministry of Education. That is, a before-school component staffed by a school-board early childhood educator (ECE), a core component led by ECE and a kindergarten teacher, and an after-school component staffed by an ECE.
Many boards, from what I've been able to briefly glean, looked at the cost of having each group of kindergarteners needing two ECEs, a full-time teacher and possibly program assistants and balked. Not at the added cost of the extra 0.5 FTE teacher -- which is covered by the full-day kindergarten grant -- or the core-day component of ECE salaries. Rather at the extended-day component of the ECEs and any other staff members. Most boards quickly realized there would be no way their other employee groups would let them pay ECEs the wages many make in private, non-profit, for-profit or municipal childcare. The bump in ECE wages to a more "school board" rate meant the boards couldn't offer a cost-recovery extended-day component without charging higher fees than what parents already access at existing programs -- in schools or at other centres.
So does anyone have a conclusive list showing which boards have bailed out of the extended-day in whole or in part as allowed in the regulation? One of the blogs I look at from time to time has some details, but not a comprehensive list. Perhaps a summer project for someone.

A change in strategies

Learned earlier this week that there appears to be a change in strategies afoot when it comes to the promotion of school expansions, renovations, green-energy projects etc.
This is the second (at least) year of a new way of looking at capital projects for school boards from the Ministry of Education perspective. Boards have a rolling capital plan and capital "liquidity template" they are constantly revising with the ministry. As they move through the approvals process with trustees, they eventually get to the point where they approve the capital project and layout the funding plan.
Regardless of the mix -- and boards can apply for provincial funding, use reserves from either disposition of property or capital -- the province now approves all the projects and the funding plans. This part makes some sense since the boards are 100% funded by the province and virtually the only money for capital that doesn't come from the Crown is leftovers from land sales. Land-sale revenues cannot be put back into operational budgets, they must be used for other capital or land expenses.
Over the past two years the pattern has been that the provincial legislature rises for the summer break and then the government farms out good-news education construction announcements to MPPs across the province. So Dave Levac (Brant) might announce millions in various types of grants to support a variety of projects in the Grand Erie / Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk educational district. Etc. From a pure communications perspective this was brilliant since it allowed each announcement to get local news hits from community papers and other more regional media, while giving MPPs, particularly backbenchers who are so rarely in the news, an opportunity to be tied to a good news project.
Well, capital funding grants aren't as splashy this year.
A local board I cover quietly got two "funding allocation letters" worth $41 million over two calendar days near the end of June. No flashy news release, no press conference. Just a letter.
That's quite a change from the past several years. One might wonder why.