Monday, May 21, 2012

Wishing, and hoping... for an unlikely moratorium

After all the time I've spent monitoring and reporting on this beat, I can't help but continue to be surprised by how every community re-invents the wheel when it comes to the question of school closures.
Here's an example (just one) from Niagara Region, where an MPP is calling for yet another moratorium on school closures. I also look at sites such as the Peterborough-based Save Local Schools and wonder. A May 12, supposedly provincewide rally against the existing school-closure process in this province saw a grand total of eight communities participate (Cambridge, Cobourg, Hamilton, Kingston, Norwood, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury and Welland), with only six school districts therein.
Ottawa, where the question of closing under-capacity schools in the city's urban core and the constant demand for more accommodation in the exurbs has yet to be comprehensively addressed, particularly within the public school board.
Toronto, which continues to have the highest vacancy rate in the province but has kept avoiding the massive slate of school closures and consolidations for a variety of reasons.
Anywhere further north than Sudbury-- because many of these boards have already done several rounds of closures and consolidations and people are living with the consequences of that time. As they are in rural eastern Ontario (Upper Canada DSB, I'm looking at you) as well as comprehensive swaths of midwestern and southwestern Ontario.
Many of their points have merit-- district school boards are not as small as the township and city -- or the county -- boards they replaced. The review process isn't an appeal and no one in government (or out of it) seems to be willing to strip a district school board of one of the few responsibilities that still lies entirely within its domain-- pupil accommodation. Overwhelmingly, however, this opposition is rooted in the status quo, NIMBYism and the reluctance to accept any change.
This is not going away. There will be no moratorium. The harsh reality is that there are plenty of schools in Ontario built in the 1950s and 1960s (or earlier) with too many vacant pupil places. It appears 2012-13 and beyond are finally the time when Ontario's Ministry of Education will live up to its often-issued threat to cut declining enrolment grants. These grants have allowed many school boards to postpone the drastic changes they needed to make in order to right-size the facilities in their districts. They're going away.
Which means (with credit to former Thames Valley DSB director of education John Thorpe) there are difficult choices to make. There will increasingly be two choices: Fund the buildings you have today to keep as many of them open as possible with nothing left over to modernize them. Or you decide to spend less on your bricks and mortar-- close, consolidate, renovate, bring as many facilities up to modern standards as possible to run them as efficiently as possible and spend all those savings on programs.
To those who would advocate the status quo, which will it be?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dance with the one that funds you

As of this week, by my count, only one (two?) teachers' federation remains at the provincial discussion table with the Ontario Ministry of Education. Only the Ontario English Catholic Teaches' Association (OECTA) and maybe one of the French-language teachers' unions remain at the table.
For those catching up, the PDTs are the vehicle by which the bulk of collective agreements in the K-12 education sector in Ontario have been settled since the Liberals took office in 2003. It's one way of settling the big questions revolving around money and provincewide working conditions at a single table, producing a template shell of an agreement that can be taken back to the 72 publicly funded school boards to finalize local issues and ratify.
Though the Liberals have approached the PDTs in a different way for each round of contracts, they have until now produced good contracts for teachers and other people working in the education sector as per-pupil spending has surpassed $10,000 per student.
It's the PDTs that have given teachers good contracts. So good, as I've written before, that those at the top of their grids will be on the so-called Sunshine List in either 2013 of 2014 by way of simple compound mathematics.
As written in May 2009;
Anyone making $88K in those employee groups on Aug. 31, 2008, just signed a deal in the last nine months that will see them reach $100K by 2012. Meaning in either 2013 or 2014, they'll be on the Sunshine List too.
I make no apologies-- but for a classroom teacher that's a very good compensation package. In Ontario, teachers and other workers in the education sector are fairly compensated for their educational and work-experience backgrounds.
PDTs also make sense because since 1998, the province funds almost all of the revenues received by a school board. While the step of full-on provincial bargaining has never actually happened, you're living in a fantasy world if you don't think the federations haven't been bargaining provincially for years. The routine appointment of a provincial table officer at all local negotiations is only the first proof of this.
At the PDT, the federations, school boards and government would come to an agreement on what would be funded and what the money would be used to accomplish. It's been successful and has drawn attention around the world for how to set goals and then orient an entire sector to reach for them.
This year, the province publicly launched negotiations by stating all the things it wouldn't do-- give raises in the first two years, allow for anyone to climb the grid, etc. Here's the thing though-- even with those take-it-or-leave-it public statements, the money available (though continually directed at provincial priorities) isn't dropping. Job losses in the sector are due almost entirely to declining enrolment, not cuts to specific programs-- though specific programs are under the gun where there are not enough students to support them.
This government has a knack for making bold statements in public, but then sitting down and working out a deal. The federations have run away from that table -- perhaps hoping a "me too" clause can save whatever deal is worked out with those who remain behind.
This whole thing is a long dance-- negotiations always are -- and it's far from over as I don't expect any labour issues until at least September, but 2013 would be a safer bet.
The federations that have walked away may be counting on public sympathy, but after eight generous years, it's doubtful they'll find in in the same way they did during previous government tenures.
Further, while the employer of record is still the local school board, my faith that local boards will negotiate to pay for things with money they haven't been given is non-existent.
The smart thing here is to come back to the table and keep talking. You gotta keep the dance going or risk being left outside the dance hall when the band and rental contract are signed for another four years-- just ask the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, who managed to lose parity for walking away in 2008-09.