Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Belleville ARC recommendations

It's possible this education reporter's own experiences covering accommodation review committees (ARCs) have created a more pessimistic outlook on how other areas in Ontario handle this process. Check out this story from Belleville where the ARC's recommendations to trustees include the closure of a prohibitive-to-repair school and the expansion of two others.
The committee's final report to trustees supports the administration's initial recommendations to close one school and convert two other schools into JK-8 facilities with expansions and facility renewal. The resulting schools' populations are projected to be a stable 300ish students, which is larger than some of the current schools, but (as staff would inform anyone who asked) provide more flexibility to deal with supervision and prep time demands.
A section of the report reads:
"The Accommodation Review Committee for Sir Mackenzie Bowell Public School does not feel that this is the ideal solution but given financial restrictions recognizes that there are not a lot of workable alternatives. The concern of the school committee is that all potential benefits recognized by the committee for the recommended scenario find fruition."
Read: if you must close our school, please make sure you follow through on all the facility upgrades and improvements so our students are learning in the best possible environment.
That's a reasonable request.
For the record, the public input meeting held by the committee -- the last official ARC function before the final report is usually tabled with trustees -- lasted all of 10 minutes. Some who've presented to the committee already or held back could still step forward and make their views known directly to trustees when the board votes on the final outcome of the accommodation review.

Bluewater update #3

News the Ministry of Education in Ontario has appointed several staff to go to Chesley and work with the Bluewater District School Board to re-examine the concerns that led to recent political turmoil.

Oh, dear

Why, oh why has Friday's grant release in Ontario not generated any significant news coverage? Every school board (save one) has seen its budget increase in an era when everyone is enraged at any publicly funded services' costs increasing and putting a greater strain on their wallets.
I shudder that no education reporter in the province has picked up on the release of these grants. Not even at the province's two largest newspapers have their education reporters (they each have more than one reporter assigned to the education beat) filed any stories on the grant release.
This concerns me deeply-- the education sector is almost 20 per cent of overall government spending in Ontario. Does it not deserve more coverage than this?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ontario grants for student needs

The details were released today on the Ontario Grants for Student Needs, the provincial grants that fund K-12 education in the province. Total grants are up $592 million across the province's 72 publicly funded school boards, which is a 3.1 per cent increase over 2008-09. This compares to the increases outlined in Thursday's post revealed in the provincial budget documents.
Highlights of the ministry memo on funding released Friday show more money being added to the expected areas relating to various provincial framework agreements and multi-year commitments that have been previously announced.
There are several constraints in the funding, some of which take effect in the 2009-10 school year and some of which won't come into effect until the 2010-11 school year. These include responding to the declining enrolment working group's recommendations on the declining enrolment adjustment grant, where top-up amounts are being scaled back a few percentage points in order to push boards to address vacant space issues promptly over a two-year period instead of the former three-year grace period. These adjustments do not apply to schools receiving funding due to their rural or remote nature, which means the top-up funding remains in place in those schools located far enough away from the next closest facility.
Scanning the board-by-board tables that were also released Friday, Education Reporter was only able to find one board (see image) where the total GSN is actually going to decrease in 2009-10 compared to the amount funded in the current year. You'll have to click on the image above to get something you can actually read clearly. It's also page 51 of the PDF linked above.
Given however, the salary increases being funded through this release of grants and some of the other increased lines for transportation, operations, etc. There are at least another dozen Northern Ontario boards where the increases are so small (IE: under $100,000 in some cases) that those boards will be forced to trim expenses elsewhere in order to balance their 2009-10 budgets. This is the impact of declining enrolment finally taking effect after four or five successive years of pouring dollars into the K-12 sector in Ontario.
Boards need to finalize their 2009-10 budgets by June 30-- which means, hopefully, there will be media coverage of the challenges being faced by these boards highlighting how these boards deal with their GSN allotment as compared to their funding needs. This media coverage will be linked on these pages as Education Reporter becomes aware of them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Education Ministry budget increases

The Ontario budget today shows a continued increase in the summary budget lines for both the Ministry of Education's base budget and its transfers to school boards.

Finance minister Dwight Duncan referenced education a few times in the budget speech, speaking to continued (and multi-year) funding for renovations and upgrades to facilities and things like the increasing high school graduation rate. Neither were surprises, given the Good Places to Learn strategy is already into its third phase. Keep in mind the provincial budget year ends March 31, whereas school board fiscal years in Ontario end Aug. 31.
Looking at the summary ministry budget lines, you can see the ministry's budget is projected to increase by 10.6 per cent to $492.9 million. The 'school boards' net expense' line is budgeted to increase 6.6 per cent to almost $13.7 billion.
As mentioned here earlier, the ministry has scheduled a web conference with school board staff for Friday morning, with signs pointing to a public release later on during the day,

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ontario grants announcement March 27

Education Reporter has learned the Ontario Ministry of Education has scheduled a webcast for Friday morning (unknown if this is for boards only or for media as well) to release and discuss the Grants for Student Needs for 2009-10. This release comes the day after the Ontario budget-- a record for the Liberal government in Ontario that has never had the grants announcement ready so soon after a provincial budget.
With provincial discussion table framework agreements now complete for all employee groups and only local agreements with public elementary school teachers remaining, a majority of school funding for the coming four school years is already a matter of public record. However, given deficit budgeting, it will be interesting to see if any board's funding happens to decrease for 2009-10 based on projected changes in enrolment. There has been some speculation for the past few years that Ontario cannot keep increasing funding to public schools in an era when enrolment continues to drop by one to two per cent annually.
Check back Friday for more.

A different ARC story

This one caught my attention today-- an accommodation review committee process where the committee and staff members' recommendations appear to be consistent. The director of education presented the recommendations to trustees Tuesday -- trustees had not attended ARC meetings so they wouldn't appear 'tainted' by the process. The recommendations seem to address a need to improve school facilities and deal with declining enrolment, which is a much more significant issue in Northern Ontario than it is in other parts of the province.
If only other boards and ARCs could learn from this group, who appear to have understood how the review committee process and school board goals can be complementary.

Bluewater update #2

A new chair has been selected at the BDSB, one who has previously served in the role.
She promptly dismissed three public presenters' concerns at the Tuesday meeting, then reassured everyone the issues they spoke about were being dealt with.
This situation / response is a common one-- parents frequently come to media wanting us to air their grievance with their local school / principal / superintendent / trustee because they feel there isn't enough being done to resolve their concern to their satisfaction.
I always try, when contacted, to encourage parents to seek remediation through the proper channels. I attempt to explain the impact blowing their child(ren)'s issue up in the media might have on actually reaching a resolution. Some times this works, some times not.
Let's see if things improve in Bluewater.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The ARC challenge

Getting back to one of the points from the Declining Enrolment Working Group report, several of the 21 recommendations focused on the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, mandated by Ontario when new pupil accommodation and review guidelines were released in October 2006.
The working group states the ARCs created by boards to seek community input on closures and consolidations of schools work, but could be doing so much better. The recommendations say ARCs do a poor job of allowing the board to explain to the community why its staff members believe closure / consolidation could provide students with the best learning environments. They present committee members (and the public, hopefully) with arcane templates full of numbers (these are actually a treasure-trove of information, but you almost need a PhD in edu-speak and ministry jargon and acronyms to understand them) that are often forgotten and left in the dust.
Many ARCs turn communities against each other, only amplifying and providing a bigger megaphone to emotional pleas from former students, parents and current students. Worse, they have been leaving communities with the impression that an ARC's report to trustees contains recommendations they must follow-- when in fact, ARCs advise trustees and reflect community opinion on staff recommendations. The dirty work of making the tough decisions is left to (as it should) trustees-- who would ultimately face the wrath of the voters come November 2010.
Take this example. Five schools, five communities -- Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood, Stayner and Elmvale in Simcoe County. No school under 500 pupils currently or projected according to board data, but some schools are under capacity and some over. Facility condition and the desire to provide the most modern learning environments and program pathways possible are factors here.
Yet coverage, and public input, focuses on the NIMBY factor-- don't take away our school, because our students are smarter, our students stay in school, our students succeed more -- etc. etc. ad nauseum. Yes, I realize this is community opinion and part of what the ARC reflects back to trustees as they make their decision. Yet the ARC can also have a role in devising options (although one four-school option closing the largest school in Midland seems, er, disconnected from reality) staff haven't considered. Being open to considering those options however, means the committee and the public need to realize what declining enrolment is and the impact fewer students and aging school facilities has have on student success.
Many ARCs end up choosing the status quo as their main recommendation, leaving trustees a minefield of public dissent when they realize the task at hand and make the difficult decision to close a school.
Stay tuned to see whether the declining enrolment working group's recommendations on this process get anywhere and succeed in changing this dynamic.

Bluewater update

So it appears the BDSB is about to choose its new chair on March 24. Let's hope trustees choose someone who is able to withstand the burden of everything happening at the board lately.
Also, for the sake of the ward represented by Rick Galbraith, let's hope trustees choose a by-election in that ward. It might provide an opportunity for some further public airing of what exactly led to his departure.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The big yawn?

On Friday, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne released a working group's report on declining enrolment. The working group of nine has been studying the numbers on declining enrolment, meeting with groups across the province, researching how other provinces have dealt with the challenge and writing its recommendations for over a year now.
The report landed in the media with a big thud-- meaning you won't find much coverage of it out there.
The minister's immed
iate response was to say she might force school boards to offer up empty school space to other schools or public institutions before allowing the board to consider school closure as a response to declining enrolment.
Why is the cov
erage of this report like a tree falling in a forest that no one has heard?
Declining enrolment -- caused by the decline in Canada's birth and fertility rates -- is one of the largest challenges facing K-12 schools, particularly in provinces like Ontario where the majority of
school board dollars are based on per-pupil figures. Fewer bums in seats equals fewer dollars, period.
As the StatsCan chart at right indicates, the numbers don't lie. We're having fewer children later in life and that's having an impact on the number of little bums available to register in schools.
As the report states, some provinces have already tackled this, since they've been dealing with outmigration of their fertile demographic for almost a generation, if not longer. Others are provinces where smaller cities and rural areas are the predominant population base and thus dealing with small schools and multi-grade classes is the rule more than the exception. Ontario is becoming one of those places, with only the few school boards surrounding the Greater Toronto Area being the ones seeing any substantive growth in the school-aged population -- growth due to immigration, not really any increase in the birth rate amongst those who've been living in those communities for over a generation.
The Ontario report makes 21 recommendations for dealing with the impact of declining enrolment, touching on a wide array of policy and finance issues. Some of these recommendations, if adopted, are quite interesting. They all stem from a background of ensuring school boards make changes with regard to creating the best possible learning environment for students-- meaning a responsibility to ensure students are being taught in the best possible spaces, using the best possible resources so they can learn what they need to be successful.
Some of the recommendations:
- The Ministry of Education provide the public with comprehensive information about declining enrolment and its impacts
* This will help counter the perception the vast majority of the province is not experiencing a school-aged population decline.
- The Ministry of Education provide templates and funding to develop and accommodate school- or board-community partnerships
* Rather than just mandate shared use (see comment on Wynne's reaction above), this recommendation asks the province to help by providing draft legal agreements that school boards can use for shared-use situations. More boards would do this, even if mandated by regulation, if all they had to do was fill in the blanks on a template agreement.
- Funding for both classroom and administrative information technology be consolidated into a single special purpose grant. This grant should recognize the fixed nature of many information technology costs, including start-up and ongoing costs related to network infrastructure, as well as maintenance costs and costs related to computer and technical support staff
* This is HUGE. As the report explains, currently funding for computers, networking and IT support is a per-pupil based revenue stream. When the funding formula was largely written in the mid- to late-1990s, this may have made more sense than it does now, in the 21st century. Similar to the way the funding formula has been amended to ensure that every school is supported by having a full-time principal on-site and/or full-time secretarial support, the report's authors recommend the same modification for IT.

These are just a few snippets from the report -- stay tuned for more as boards deal with this report and the ministry actually responds to it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How to squeeze 194 into 192

People hate change.
People are reluctant to give up on tradition.
These are two things that emerge time and time again in education, particularly at the K-12 level. Over the years, the tendency of parents and the community at large to avoid change in the way they think schools should run keeps popping up over and over.
Just ask any school board that has tried to change the structure of its primary, middle (if they have any) and high schools. What's the right grouping of grades? K-6, 7-9 and 10-12? Or K-8 and 9-12? Or K-5, 6-9 and 10-12? Your right answer is largely going to depend on where you went to school, what school district or board you attended and what the tradition in that area has established.
This inability to break with tradition and challenge the past has arisen its ugly head again in the Province of Ontario. School boards in the province go through the annual exercise of 'setting' their school calendars, based on regulations set out under the Ontario Education Act. Those regulations state that 194 days of 'instruction' must be included in the calendar between Sept. 1 and June 30. With the 2008 addition of the Family Day public holiday in the province on the third Monday of February and the latest possible September date for Labour Day, school boards have been scratching their heads on how to squeeze 194 days into a calendar that only has 192. As a result, the first day of classes for the 2009-10 school year looks as though it will vary depending on what school board you're looking at. Some are making their staff come in before the Labour Day weekend for professional development days, bumping back the start of classes for students until the more traditional 'day after Labour Day.' Others have scheduled the start of school for earlier than Labour Day, shortening the traditional 10-week K-12 summer break.
This has drawn a variety of predictable responses -- see some examples here, here and here.
The possibility of a shorter summer even led the Canadian National Exhibition to mail school boards asking them not to start their students' classes before Labour Day as it would have an economic impact on the CNE. The letter (a link will be posted soon) indicates the CNE relies on high school students for much of the labour needed during the fair and starting classes early would take these people away. What this has to do with school boards outside the Toronto area is confusing, but the letters went out last month.
Starting school before Labour Day would be a big change for many families to get used to. However, it's not the end of the world. There are already school boards in Ontario that have a long history of starting classes before Labour Day. This practice isn't uniform across North America or even Canada, but Ontarians seem to be treating it like an unbreakable law.
What do you think? Is it?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's the deal in Bluewater District?

There appear to be some serious governance issues happening at the Bluewater District School Board. For those not familiar with the geography, this is the public school board headquartered out of Chesley that covers Bruce and Grey counties.
Last April, then trustee Meaford-Blue Mountain trustee Jean Sullivan left the board, upset and pushed to the edge over a lack of accountability and apparently an understanding amongst trustees they could no longer request recorded votes on key issues. The ability to request a recorded vote, where every member's opinion is noted in the minutes, is one way to make trustees accountable for their decisions. To agree to abstain from recorded votes is rare, and suggests a willingness to suppress any dissident opinion.
She was replaced by an appointed trustee -- something permitted under the Ontario Education Act -- Rick Galbraith, a retired principal. Galbraith was elected as chair of the board in December 2008 by his peers and he submitted his resignation in a very public manner March 20.
He told local media he was overwhelmed by the number of things he didn't know were and weren't happening at the school board.
Two errors here:
  1. The Bluewater trustees should have done a better job of selecting Sullivan's replacement. For Galbraith to say he was being overwhelmed in his job as chair is unacceptable for someone who stepped forward to take the responsibilities of a trustee.
  2. For whatever is happening out of the public eye to leave Galbraith feeling as though his only option was to resign as chair and trustee is just sad.
The remaining trustees have some explaining to do and hopefully parents and supporters of this board can regain some confidence in the staff and politicians who are running their schools.

Every blog has to start with its first post

Welcome to the first post at EducationReporter.ca.
I have been reporting on education in Canada (Ontario, specifically) since 1999. As I have become more experienced in this craft, I have come to learn that education reporting -- particularly for JK-12 schools -- is very underrated in this country.
In newsrooms the same size as the one I am working in now, it is extremely rare to have one reporter focused on education writing. Across Canada, there are very few media with full-time education reporters. In the newsrooms that have dedicated education reporters, the people doing the reporting don't remain at the education desk for long. Education reporting is not seen as a "sexy" beat for journalists and readers, listeners and viewers some times agree.
Yet education, particularly K-12 education, is the one thing we all have in common. Each and every single one of us went to school as a child-- even though we attended in different places and spaces, it's a common experience we all share.
My hope is this place becomes a gathering point for those journalists who write about education in this country, along with those who enjoy reading well-written journalism, analysis and commentary about what is happening in our schools.
Over time, with additional effort, I plan on growing this site into its own domain, educationreporter.ca. It will move beyond providing links to media stories on education to providing analysis and commentary on the education issues being reported in our media. Some day, hopefully, in time, it will feature education news not published or broadcast anywhere else.
Please look for more in the coming weeks and months as this site grows, and please join the conversation.