Sunday, November 15, 2009

PFE on school closings

I was out-of-country when People for Education released its annual report on school closings. However, it's a significant report and issue, so here I am catching up to it almost a full week after it was initially released.
First, let me quibble with some of the data. Assembling this information on school closures, accommodation reviews and 'replacement' schools across 72 boards is challenging enough, and ensuring it remains current is also a challenge. There has to be a cutoff or the report would never get published with the constant changes taking place. That said, in a board I'm very familiar with, there are currently five reviews underway (two of which are now before trustees, with a few more not far behind), and these are not encapsulated in PFE's report. The number of replacement schools is also underreported. I also quibble with the chart on page 5 showing 5,000 students are needed to fund an educational assistant. If this is truly the case (I've not gone looking into the funding formula to verify) then how do boards manage to place at least one EA -- if not full-time then part-time -- in every school?
The focus on closures was the greatest foible of the reporting I was able to see on the report as well. Let's all focus on the number of schools closing and not provide the full context as to why, nor the context of what happens to the students in these closed / closing schools. Let's ignore the fact that in some cases, the replacement school -- though larger and perhaps not as local as its predecessors -- provides a vastly improved learning environment. Which is ridiculous, given the report is only 14 pages and actually includes some of this context on page 2.
Now as to the report's actual content?
PFE wants a review of the funding formula -- which was promised by 2010 (now 2011) by the government. It wants that review to re-align those elements of staffing and maintenance (etc.) still dependent on pupil populations reaching a certain threshold. From the report:
Before the review of funding, the Ministry of Education, in co-operation with Ministries such as Children and Youth Services, Health, Health Promotion and Municipal Affairs should:
  • examine research on optimal school size;
  • investigate the impact of a community hub model on things like overall health promotion, neighbourhood viability, youth violence and poverty reduction; and
  • develop policy and funding to support and promote integrated planning and schools as community hubs.
The school size one is interesting given my recent exploits. PFE suggests high schools in the 600-900 range, which per our definitions earlier this week would actually be "medium-sized" high schools. This is also a range where many boards are currently able to make high schools work under the current formula.
PFE is bang on when it says Ontario is falling behind on the development of community hubs in its schools. Where this hasn't occurred naturally due to geography or by intent due to construction in times where childcare or other services were integrated, we've fallen behind. The abandonment of any further expansion of the Best Start program after the federal government pulled its cash out of the initiative to fund measly childcare credits for families has put Ontario behind.
The report also fails to address how the recent "surge" in school closures is directly tied to the moratorium on closures requested by former minister Gerard Kennedy. That request, which virtually every board in Ontario complied with, created a backlog of issues -- school physical condition, population decline, etc. -- across every board that wasn't dealt with from December 2003 until well after the new guidelines were released in October 2006. Many boards also spent a lot of time (and money) subsequent to the release of those guidelines preparing capital plans. Kennedy said he was going to personally review each of these, but moved on to other pastures before most were even submitted. His successors at the ministry backed away from that commitment, making the capital plans working documents subject to continual change and approval from ministry staff members.
The end result was that it was at least another academic year after the guidelines were released before boards had their own internal policies and procedures prepared and aligned to begin tackling a backlog of school accommodation issues.
This as during this time many boards' largest grade cohorts began moving from elementary schools into high schools. The next four years will be even more telling as student population declines begin to stabilize in elementary but hit high schools hard and comparatively fast-- remember the declines had eight to 10 years to move through elementary schools. The impact will be felt in a four- or five-year time frame across high schools.
Is a review of the funding formula needed? Yes. It should be continually reviewed, with major updates every five years or so.
Does the province need a community hub policy and practice? Yes-- desperately.
Should all closures be abandoned until this is figured out? No-- this strategy has led us to where many boards have been in the past two academic years and another moratorium will only create more challenges than the closures it may actually prevent in the long term.


Anonymous said...

I thank you ER for recognizing that Gerard Kennedy's moratorium left the reviews/closures behind.

Also, I understand that the funding to schools and amending, whether one-time allocations or new funding policies are being done all the time. It's always in flux, so no major review is required.

My fear, when groups like People for Education's only solution is a funding review that the government might wise up and see fewer, and fewer students, but costing more, they may just decide in a review to allocate less, not more as we've come to expect.

Should it take more money to educate fewer children?

Anonymous said...

Part of that moratorium was that it was politically savvy in getting votes.

Some didn't pay attention to that moratorium though and did their own thing before the new accommodatino regulations came out and they're glad they did.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 15 Nov. 19:06
Indeed, a handful of boards paid no attention to the requested moratorium and went ahead and closed schools anyway. Lakehead DSB (Thunder Bay and area) comes to mind, as does the Ottawa-Carleton DSB and a few others.

All were "reviewed" by a minister's appointee, who in all cases didn't reverse the decision. Notably, I remember reading the Lakehead report where the author notes the board did a poor job of consulting the community but admitted he couldn't in good faith recommend reversal of the decision and/or alternate solutions as the construction of the new / expanded facilities was already well underway.

Anon 19:00
We are spending more on education than in recent memory-- particularly as the province has seen an average reduction of two per cent in student counts each of the last several years. However, we're paying people well to do the jobs they're doing, and we're making some costly investments in programs. The next year or two should see board budgets level off-- there was one board in 2009-10 that saw a reduction in its budget grants, I suspect 2010-11 will see a handful or greater. The board chairs I keep in regular touch with are certainly hinting the years are getting leaner again.

That said, it would be political suicide for this Liberal government to actually see its education ministry budget decrease.


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of thoughts (always enjoy reading the blog!)

--Schools Boards that place EAs in every class are spending above the Ministry allotment and making a decision to take the money from somewhere else,

--reviews on accomodations reviews are only ever done to review the process not the outcome, which is very frustrating to those that challenge a closure because what the the challengers are usually looking for is a way to reverse the decision

Education Reporter said...

Anon 16 Nov. 07:18
Yes, indeed reviews are of process and not result— as of when the guidelines were released in Oct. 2006.

Previous to that, the reviews could actually do more than that— my memory is fading, but I do remember reading a review pre-2006 that called on the board to go back and do more consultation. Will make an attempt to dig this up and post.


Anonymous said...

You're right ER. Pre the new accomm. review guidelines the scope of choice re: what to do with an under-enrolled school were very flexible. Up to and including working with community partners. Did we really need new guidelines to remind boards already well ensconced in viewing their school as the hub of their community?

Re: the reminder to "consult" more that the current guidelines encourage. Smart boards did as much, if not more consultation without the guidelines. There were the odd exceptions where boards didn't though, so I presume the guidelines speak to the laggards in community consultation?

There was some talk about the newer guidelines putting a lid on the passion that often comes with community consultation. By "passion" I mean, huge events with screaming insults and very little controlled discussion.