Friday, June 19, 2009

Resist the urge, DSBN.

The Standard posted a story by Tiffany Mayer on the District School Board of Niagara's enrolment planning musings. The board is considering spending money to hire Watson & Associates Economists Ltd.
The company the board has in mind, C.N. Watson (sic), would look at enrolment and facility use board wide in elementary and secondary schools and come up with a plan for the board to get the most out of their schools, said Linda Kartasinski, the board’s superintendent of planning.
The company would consider all the board’s information, demographics of individual municipalities, housing in areas near schools and similar information to come up with its report, Kartasinski said.
“The perspective of the planning department is we don’t have the capacity to do this kind of a detailed report,” she said. “With declining enrolment, every year gets a little bit tougher. It would be better if we had a better picture to start with.”
Ugh. No. Don't do it.
This firm charged a southwestern Ontario board a staggering amount to provide information it could have obtained from entering into a dialogue with its local municipalities. Its legwork in some areas of the district amounted to a grand total of one phone call and downloading a report that was publicly available on the county website.
Watson's specialty is school-aged demographics, which not every municipal planner is good at ("Houses? Oh, that must equal kids.") People, including some times municipal planners, politicians and staff, see new housing and they automatically think skyrocketing enrolment. Well, take a closer look at the kind of housing being built and the demographics of those who are childbearing and taking advantage of it. Good planners and demographers know housing does not necessarily mean a stable population of school-aged children in this era of shrinking birth and fertility rates. Our population growth is driven more by population shift than me getting hitched and having lots and lots of kids.
Niagara Region must employ some decent planners, I would think. Given the district board's boundaries are the same as the region's, it only makes sense the school board should partner / collaborate / etc. with the regional government in its planning. DSBN should also have its own in-house capital planning experts, who know exactly to what extent every school is being used since it has to submit these figures (and forecasts) to the Ministry of Education annually.
Why do I say the board should avoid Watson? Well, the first call Watson's going to make is to the region's planning department to ask it for all its growth forecasts.
I have nothing against Watson and its staff, but the board should save its money and time, and invite its local planner for coffee instead.
At one point, Watson also charged $190/hour for some of its staff members' time. Ouch.


Robert Hunking said...

Would that explain why the other (SWO) board used another company to update their enrollment projection?

Anonymous said...

Agree with E.R.'s caution re: their choice of consultants. I too believe that money spent will give them the same results if they just talked to the local planners.

Education Reporter said...

The other board used Watson because it felt its own planning and demographer were being ridiculed by the public. They'd show up at public meetings and tell the truth (student populations are declining) and be challenged by others-- at one point even including mayors.
Watson has done these populations studies dozens of times. When the local board hired them, I did a comparative of every copy of a Watson-authored report I could get my hands on.
The local report wasn't a big departure from the previous ones, only with local student numbers, communities and facilities plopped into the appropriate places.