Saturday, January 30, 2010

Playing at AgendaCamp

This Sunday, I'll be spending the full day at TVO's AgendaCamp, being held at UWO in London. Peruse the site / wiki for more information on what AgendaCamp is and the topics under discussion in London. I'm pretty psyched about this day, particularly after having spent Saturday at a Canadian Association of Journalists' one-day technology and innovation conference in Toronto. It's a weekend full of stepping outside of the day-to-day reporting (and even blogging) that I've been doing and wrapping my head around concepts of what tomorrow might look like and how I can fit into that as a journalist.
I had pitched a session for AgendaCamp, which has been rolled up into "Making London a leader in education innovation and implementation." It also includes topics as proposed on early learning, supports for young families and a scholastic park and resort at the city's Fanshawe Conservation Area.
I will be social-media-ing my brains out yet again Sunday (Twitter locked me out for too many status updates twice on Saturday, I need to moderate my count Sunday), via Twitter, Facebook and maybe even Flickr if I get the camera out and working. You can search Twitter for all AgendaCamp tweets from all the participants who'll be online from the venue. I'll try and tag my education-related tweets, if you're not as interested in the bigger picture.
If the brain's not too fried by Monday, I may post some longer relevant thoughts back on here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Can you complain about the outcome when you refuse to participate in the process?

A few things have drawn my eye recently going back to my old pet peeve about how municipalities treat accommodation review committees and how they do or don't participate in them.
The main example here comes from the London Free Press Thursday, with Pat Maloney's article about Coun. Bill Armstrong's refusal to allow himself to be nominated for an upcoming Thames Valley District School Board review. There was a followup piece Friday.
Armstrong is quoted in the article itself and in the comment section noting he will not participate in the ARC because he wants all four schools to stay open and would rather concentrate on a community based campaign.
Armstrong raised his concern Wednesday as board of control discussed a Thames Valley school board invitation to put a city representative on a committee reviewing the future of four east-end schools: F.D. Roosevelt, Lord Nelson, Prince Charles and Sir Winston Churchill.
All those schools except Roosevelt are in Armstrong’s Ward 2. School board administration has recommended closing Churchill.
Armstrong said he won’t join the Thames Valley board’s accommodation review of the four schools — “you’re just lining up to take flack” — but he plans to set up a community group to fight any closing.
“This is what the review is all about — whether they should stay open or closed,” he said.
Then, just to make sure you understood his point, from the comments section of the same article:
The schools in question form part of neighbourhood communities. Closing any of these schools would have an impact on the community. In order to save a few dollars, I cannot and will not support forcing students to walk further or be bused when they currently are happy in their neighbourhood school.
These neighbourhood schools provide many services. This would all be lost. Finally, I have heard negative comments about the ARC process from other Councillors. This is why Board of Control is recommending that I or any other member of Council not sit on this Committee.
It frustrates me when members of municipal councils fail to understand what a review committee is and what its task is. These councillors all sit on a board (of their municipal corporation) where staff bring them reports containing recommendations. Councils have committees that study controversial matters and, using both the information and recommendations received from staff members serving the committee, committee members and those in the public who address the committee, make decisions and recommendations. Armstrong's own role as a city councillor relies on receiving recommendations, advice and public input into the decisions he is compelled to make as a municipal councillor. I would guarantee every councillor in municipal politics has looked at the information and opinion before them and made a decision that was controversial. That they've made what they felt was the best decision for the interests of the greatest number of people that some people vehemently oppose.
I made this very point with a politician in my coverage area during the first round of reviews. He was opposed to the school board's decision on rural school closures, yet in the very same term had been part of a library board (a committee of council) that had closed a series of small county library branches. So while pulling one service out of these smaller rural villages, he was opposing another board's process to consider the same factors for schools.
So serving on a review committee shouldn't be rocket science to a municipal councillor.
Yet the City of London in particular has done a piss-poor job of sitting on most accommodation reviews held for London schools. If Coun. Armstrong wants his community schools to remain open, he can be part of the review committee that develops alternatives for trustees to consider. As a councillor, he just might be able to facilitate conversations about alternatives and discussion of partnership opportunities between school board staff members and either the city itself or community agencies.
Or, I guess, he can just crap all over the committee and the school board at the 11th hour, when the committee provides recommendations to trustees he can't support.
So which one is truly the more effective strategy? Which one is actually going to help students remain in community schools while accessing the best possible physical learning spaces and program opportunities that can feasibly be provided by the school board? Which one would allow for new partnerships to be developed between the school board and the municipality or community agencies?
Or, which one provides the better platform to throw stones from the sidelines and complain about the end result (that you played no part in)?
It brings to mind another one -- a la Community Schools Alliance -- where councils are calling on the Avon Maitland District School Board to postpone reviews until the Education Funding Formula review is complete. There's nothing like a vain attempt to delay a review that should probably happen now and won't be any easier to do if delayed another couple of years.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Save us, Leona'

A quick hit on an earlier post dampening expectations on recently appointed Minister of Education Leona Dombrowsky. The Niagara Advance provides another opportunity to remind everyone not to expect much if any different approach than what was in place with Kathleen Wynne.
Councillor Gary Zalepa Jr. says the new education minister, Leona Dombrowsky, former minister of agriculture and rural affairs, is no stranger to rural communities and the specific issues they face.
While Kathleen Wynne, who was moved from the education portfolio, was familiar with the situation facing NOTL's only high school, Dombrowsky, elected MPP from a largely rural area, can be expected to understand NDSS challenges, he said.
Dombrowsky was also involved in a survey conducted by the province recently to gather information about municipalities developing partnerships with school boards.
"She's no stranger to education issues, and she has a good grasp of rural issues. That could be helpful to us," said Zalepa.
"That's just my take on the cabinet shuffle, but I'm viewing this as something that could be positive for us."
He believes the document builds a good case for a high school in NOTL, and hopes the outcome could be a new, right-sized school for 500 students.
Yeah. OK. Let me add another element to this-- the school boards in Dombrowsky's own riding (Catholic, public) haven't escaped accommodation reviews. They're doing them, and on the Catholic page you can see the now-minister with a school consolidation announcement for a new school. The Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic board was an early adopter of Watson and Associates advice and reports.
Myself, I'd love to see that 10-point document Zalepa refers to the in the article. I don't know if the Niagara Advance would take a rational look at it, but I'm sure the St. Catharines Standard would.

ELP's impact on childcare providers

This story has poked its head out several times in the last month or so, as school board administrators and trustees begin to realize the impact of how the Ministry of Education is choosing to roll out the first year of full-day kindergarten. Two examples are a very brief item from the Brantford Expositor and another from CBC Ottawa. These revelations come out of the ministry memo from assistant deputy minister Jim Grieve, who is leading the ELP implementation.
I've yet to hear of a school board in Ontario that isn't recoiling from the requirement they start setting, charging and collecting fees for the mandatory before- and after-school component of the full-day for four- and five-year-olds. Was it in the Pascal report? Not so overtly, though he did recommend the Ministry of Education become the sole and lead ministry for the gamut of children's services, all of which would be tied into the school-centred community hub of early childhood services and education. The ministry is doing just that-- and telling boards as it can, they will run all aspects of the early learning program. Which means no partnerships with childcare providers or children's services programs for the ELP kids, as the staff members must be board employees running the ministry program.
The memo makes this clear, and former minister Kathleen Wynne was quite clear about it as well during what would be my last interview with her after the year-one sites were announced on Jan. 12.
As to the level of fees, the memo provides the basis for a formula with plenty of caveats. It's all based on the wage that boards would pay these early childhood educators, and once the federations get involved (I don't see them standing by and allowing this new employee group to go unrepresented) those wages will undoubtedly by higher than the pittance many ECEs are paid today.
The before- and after-school program costs would be based on:
  • ECE wages (board determined) as well as wages for any program assistants if more than 13 children are present
  • Benefits at 24.32% of salary
  • Vacation pay at 13.4% of salary
  • PD for ECEs at 2% of salary
  • ECE supply coverage at 5% of salary
  • An undetermined amount for school operations (heat, lights, etc. -- board determined)
  • Up to 10% vacancy allotment for empty spaces
  • Program costs (example, $1 to $3 a day)
  • Snacks, if provided (example $2 a day per child)
  • Internal collection costs
The appendix to the memo shows a sample, based on an ECE benchmark wage of $19.48/hr (which, at just over $37K a year, seems higher than my perception of what the average ECE makes today-- not meant as a bad thing, as I think ECEs are underpaid). The ensuing math shows a total cost for both before- and after-care at $19.37 per day. Given transportation is NOT to be provided by school boards for the 7 a.m. start or the 6 p.m. departure, I can't offhand say how that compares to what any childcare provider might be charging today for before- and after-school programs (I don't have kids), but I strongly suspect it's less.
The memo takes one responsibility off school boards' shoulders they had feared would end up in their domain-- fee subsidy. To-date, that will remain the responsibility of the local municipal service managers. They do this today.
Given the reality that these 4- and 5-year-olds (along with any programs for older elementary school-aged kids) are pure profit centres for childcare providers, if the programs are cheaper, they'll lose this income. They're losing income regardless since most schools are half-day or alternate-day and in full-day schools the kids will be unavailable to childcare programs for a larger portion of the week. That's the CBC story, with providers now asking the government to loosen the Day Nurseries Act and increase the caregiver-child ratio for younger kids. These youngest childcare attendees are money losers for childcare providers since they have to staff the programs with more people than for a school-age program.
As predicted by Pascal, these first few years of implementation will be messy. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made. This is part of why he recommended phasing in as well-- so that Ontario isn't stuck with problems in the program and can tweak and refine as it expands to full implementation. I suspect the relationship between school boards, the before- and after-school components and childcare / children's services programs will be one of the elements that will be retweaked.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Consequences to retirement

TorSun's Moira MacDonald had this piece in today's paper highlighting some of the conversations and exchanges she's had with retired teachers since she published her first column late last year about the richest double-dip in Ontario. From the piece:
The e-mail flew thick and fast — some from grateful new teachers and their families, but most from annoyed retired teachers.
“Stop thinking that every retired teacher is sitting on a pile of money,” wrote one person, accusing me of branding a working retired teacher as “a bad person” — as if presenting the debate automatically tarred all working retirees.
“Have you read any of the research that suggests retiring ‘cold turkey’ has been linked to shortening lifespan?” wrote another.

Retirees pointed out their pension benefits aren’t as great as people might think — they don’t come with a health plan (though some boards allow retirees to pay into one) — and modest pensions might be decimated by paying for private health benefits, financial fall-out from a late-in-life divorce, supporting kids in university, or chronic health problems that prevented them from earning a full pension before retirement.
Most of us can relate — because that’s life, and we all cope with it, some without a company pension, whether we paid into it or not. (Teachers currently put 11% of their earnings into theirs, the government matches it.)
Just because you turn 65 does not mean you can no longer do the job — some of us may be better than ever. But eventually we have to give the younger generation a crack. If we don’t, they’re going to have less experience, may totally give up the profession because they can’t get a job, and won’t be fully contributing into the tax base that will increasingly support all of our retirees.
Like MacDonald, I have some trouble digesting these reactions. Nobody forced these teachers, many of whom have clocked out of their contracts the moment they became eligible, to hang up their chalk sticks and enter retirement. While some may have been forced to retire at 65, legislation has changed that and those older retirees could now return. Many of the retired teachers I know personally are well below that threshold.
Complaints about their pension? It may not be diamond-encrusted, but it's certainly a gold-plated, public service pension. Given the salaries many of these teachers are retiring at ($75,000+ would be my conservative estimate), even a percentage of that is much, much healthier than what awaits many of us.
Many teachers circled their retirement date on calendar and budgeted on being able to get occasional-teacher contracts to their annual max (or beyond) to supplement that income so they could live the life they wanted to. The willingness to accept that is, hopefully, changing.
Whenever the next reconsideration of this arrangement is up, I would hope these generous provisions to double-dip are axed. What other profession / craft allows you to return to work, earn a full salary and not be penalized on your pension earnings?
If this is axed, given the over-abundant pool of certified talent available in this province, teachers eligible for retirement should ponder their options carefully. If they can't afford retirement, they may just have to face the same choice others do and stay at work. To claim poverty as the reason for taking advantage of this rich allowance is an insult to those who will never get that option.
You might say that would keep them around longer and still prevent entry into the profession for younger candidates. But at least then they could access a greater share of occasional-teacher placements, as opposed to currently, as they're blocked from permanent contracts because of declining enrolment and then further by retired teachers on occasional teacher lists.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dampening expectations

I felt the need earlier this week when I saw this editorial in the Belleville Intelligencer to start dampening expectations that newly appointed Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky is going to play the role of the rural-school champion. From the piece:
One issue we hope Dombrowsky adds to that is rural school closings. A major platform plank of the Liberals in 2003, the government has had only limited success in keeping smaller rural schools open. In 2009, about 150 schools were closing or were recommended to be closed while about 100 more were undergoing accommodation reviews.
As recently as last September, Dombrowsky was non-committal on the issue, saying "Our government has recognized that in small communities (schools are) a community hub. We also have to acknowledge that the very purpose of schools is to educate children. The school must be able to provide the best programming. A school needs a critical mass to do that. It's about balancing (those needs.)"
As the minister now responsible for balancing those needs, we hope Dombrowsky uses her experience not only as minister for rural affairs but as a self proclaimed "rural member" to tip that balance away from protecting the bottom line at all costs and toward protecting rural communities that rely so heavily on their schools for more than just educating their children.
Well, here's the thing: Some of this may be boosterism since Dombrowsky is the local MPP for the Belleville and the rural areas to the north and south. Out my way, in the heart of Ontario's agricultural region, Dombroswky — to be fair, the Liberal government as a whole — wasn't seen as a hero when I was covering that beat. Admittedly, this part of Ontario is more Tory blue in its traditions than Liberal red, particularly out on the concession roads, but she didn't have an easy ride as minister. While the government did eventually adopt a Risk Management Program-style initiative, the province's general farm organizations did an end-run around Dombrowsky to then-finance minister Greg Sorbara to get support for the program. I have, in a drawer around here somewhere, the 300+ pages to prove it that led to my own feature-length series.
Suffice it to say that despite her background, her reputation within the farm community isn't sterling.
Making the assumption that because of her experience as Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs minister she will do any more or any better at 'protecting' rural schools is a big leap of faith. This government has been particularly consistent in insisting it's the district school board's responsibility to decide what school facilities it will operate and where it will operate them. I don't see that changing under Dombrowsky's tenure. In fact, she's a proven communicator in maintaining the government's message.
Will the still-to-be-finalized policy on the sharing of school board facilities have a more rural flavour to it as a result of Dombrowsky? Possibly.
Will she be a friendlier ear to the Community Schools Alliance — one who engages their requests and delivers on them — than her predecessor? Doubtful.
We shouldn't expect Dombrowsky will relieve boards of their responsibility to review, vet and give fulsome consideration to the location, size and condition of the spaces our children are learning in— regardless of whether they're on a rural concession or an urban throughfare.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dombrowsky for Wynne

I was honestly surprised to see the cabinet shuffle impact education when it was announced today. Kathleen Wynne (Don Valley West) moves from Education to Transportation, where the news release says she will, "help implement the government's MoveOntario 2020 public transit plan, improve service-delivery at GO Transit and work with municipalities to build and maintain the highways and bridges that are critical to our economic success."

Leona Dombrowsky (Prince Edward-Hastings) moves from Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to Education. Quoting the release, she, "leads our efforts to deliver full-day learning for four- and five-year olds, further increase test scores and graduation rates."
I've had the pleasure of speaking with both these women— there was a time when I was also an agriculture reporter and spoke with Dombrowsky fairly freqently when she was first appointed to the role to replace Steve Peters. She is feisty and can speak to both rural and urban issues— I imagine these are some of the reasons why she has been shuttled into Education.
Though Wynne was the education minister I've spoken to the least — for whatever reason, and in no way intentional, I spoke with Gerard Kennedy and Sandra Pupatello more often — I always found our interviews to be straightforward and to the point. I have had a wonderful relationship with her staffers.
I can't shake the feeling, however, that this is a demotion for Wynne and somewhat of a promotion for Dombrowsky. Education is the second-larges line item (after Health and Long-term Care) in the provincial budget and full-day learning is and will be the centrepiece of this government's mandate. MoveOntario 2020? Does anyone outside the GTA care?
Early Learning? It impacts every family in the province.
So, a goodbye with thanks to Wynne, the longest-serving Education Minister of the McGuinty government and a hello and welcome to Dombrowsky.

Columnist who knows vs. one who stokes a fire

I compare and contrast two columnists (who happen to work for the same chain) who've offered up their opinion on full-day kindergarten since the list of the first-phase schools was announced Jan. 12.
First up is Christina Blizzard's column from Jan. 13, which ran in the TorSun that day and as usual got pretty wide pickup across the chain's other papers across Ontario. Given the subject matter (most media in the province did some sort of coverage on the year one sites), Blizzard's column was actually picked up by quite a few more papers than usual that Wednesday.
The headline that actually caught my eye and directed me to the original column at the Toronto Sun site was one used by the St. Thomas Times-Journal, semi-quoting a line in the column-- "All-day kindergarten just free babysitting." From the column:
And what did McGuinty want to talk about at his first news conference of the new year in Chatham yesterday?
All-day kindergarten, which when fully implemented will cost a whopping $1.5 billion a year.
There is massive unemployment and welfare rolls are soaring. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is under pressure to cut a $24.7-billion deficit. Yet the government is pushing ahead with this Cadillac version of kindergarten, that will require teachers to be in the classroom for the full day, too. Even the government’s advisor, Charles Pascal, suggested early childhood educators only could be used half the time.
The premier said yesterday the new program will employ 5,000-6,000 teachers and close to 20,000 early childhood educators.
This year the program will cost $200 million for about 35,000 kids. In 2011 that will grow to $300 million for 50,000 four and five-year-olds. When phased in by 2015, it will accommodate 240,000 kids.
The premier was vague about where the money was coming from to pay for it, but did suggest that if we don’t do this, we won’t be competitive with the rest of the world.
I’m not quite sure how that works. This economic downturn has hit this province particularly hard.
Many people — especially older workers who paid to babysit their own children — have been laid off. Seniors have seen their pension savings evaporate.
Yet those people are supposed to cough up more in taxes so kids who are four and five years old now will get a job 20 years from now?
Give me a break. This is nothing more than free babysitting for two-income families who could well afford to pay their own way.
Way to stoke the fire, Christine. So, did you choose to set aside the knowledge that kindergarten is not babysitting? Or do you not know the difference between the two? It's a statement that would both anger supporters of full-day kindergarten and get its detractors saying "you betcha."
As to her main point-- that McGuinty is fiddling while Rome / Ontario / the world / oldsters' pensions burn... the government's 2007 education platform gave very, very high listing to full-day kindergarten. Some might wonder, independent of the other questions, why it took McGuinty so long to take the step taken on Monday.
In comes Moira MacDonald this weekend, speaking in more the more nuanced terms of someone who actually writes about education for a living. She's focusing on how "optional" may not really mean optional at all when it comes to enrolling in full-day kindergarten.
When Dalton McGuinty’s special adviser on full-day kindergarten, Charles Pascal, had his report unveiled last spring, he insisted his plan would allow parents to choose whether to send their four and five-year-olds off for a full day or not.
“Children’s participation would be by parental choice, with parents having the option of a half, full (school hours), or a fee-based extended day of programming,” reads one of the recommendations in Pascal’s report, released late last spring. The government itself calls the full-day program “optional.”
But, like that earlier sexy and costly education plan — smaller primary classes — this is not rolling out exactly as advertised.
My guess is the government is banking on the majority of “lucky few” parents being so ecstatic about the prospect of lower daycare fees or a few more hours to themselves, the applause will cancel out any minority report squawks.
Parents in the neighbourhoods chosen for phase one of the program — capturing about 15% of kindergarten-age students next year — will gradually learn their options are more theoretical than real.
“Schools that have been selected this year will only offer a full-day program for 4 & 5 year olds (so there will no longer be any half-day programs at these schools),” the education ministry wrote me in an e-mail last week.
This is not surprising. The government (and any that follow after 2011) has already signalled in its staffing and early decisions on full-day kindergarten that it's not following Pascal's recommendations to a tee. We have the teacher / ECE decision from earlier in the fall, and in the accompanying memo that went out to school boards Jan. 13 from the early learning deputy minister (which I have a copy of and will post here later on Monday), the first details to boards of how to handle things like fee subsidies, etc. for the childcare components. FYI, boards were given a formula for the before- and after-school fees for the kindergarten students-- most of which will fall in the range of $20-40 a day.
Pascal's vision of options may not be feasible from an implementation perspective. With declining birth and fertility rates across most of the province, having full-day and half-day streams in place at every Ontario school would be a nightmare to implement-- a point MacDonald concedes but ultimately said wouldn't make that much more of a difference given other high-cost options already chosen by the government. I don't buy the generalization the kids can't handle it-- one MacDonald makes in assuming a tradition of half-day, every day kindergarten-- simply not a tradition that is in place at every school and in every board. There are some kids who may never do well in a full-day, every day program, just as there are plenty already thriving in full-day programs that won't be that different from what's coming to every school.
Where I agree with MacDonald however is in flexibility. This program will not play as well (perhaps a nod to Blizzard's comment) in some parts of the province as it will in others. It's likely that some parents who may have been willing to put their son/daughter in kindergarten for a half-day (or full-day, alternate days) program won't be willing when it comes to a full-day, every day. School boards -- and more specifically schools -- should be allowed the flexibility to permit a family to make that decision without losing grant. So while running to parallel programs is something that shouldn't happen, local flexibility will allow boards to address local needs.
All that being said, it really also depends on what other options are available out there. Four- and five-year-old childcare programming is one of the industry's few profit centres. If some providers find a way to offer alternate programs (half-day, etc.) that meet a need full-day kindergarten doesn't, some might find a market for it in the right community. Chances are that most parents who don't register their children today for whatever form of kindergarten they have access to still won't after it goes full-day. Why bother chasing this crowd or playing to them?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

School structures

An Avon Maitland school-closure review is toying with the idea of a JK-12 school in the area being studied. Read the radio station's report here, along with a previous dispatch from the same review here. From the first link:
The Friends of Hensall Public School proposes that South Huron District High School in Exeter be made over into a Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 facility to house students currently going to Exeter Public School.
Group Co-Chair Joan Bradley says it makes more fiscal sense for the Board to close Exeter Public than either of the elementary schools in Hensall or Zurich.
Bradley says Exeter Public School is almost 70 years old and has what she calls a patchwork of additions that have been built onto the facility since it opened in 1942.
She says the elementary schools in Hensall and Zurich -- which are in relatively good shape -- should remain open instead of the one in Exeter that would cost 750 thousand dollars to upgrade.
Bradley says there will be 413 empty student spaces at SDHS next year and there will be 313 students enrolled at Exeter Public.
The willingness to consider a different school structure is an important one. Recently, the board serving the Pembroke area took the same step in a school consolidation. It's not uncommon to see these school structures in Northern Ontario (north of, say Sault Ste. Marie - North Bay - Timmins) and in rural and remote areas in other provinces. It's happening in southern Ontario as well-- Woodstock / Oxford County is about to get a K-12 French Catholic school. I'm sure, given how this review is already questioning its leadership its members will give a thorough vetting to the concept and consider it not just as a means of shifting the spotlight from Hensall.
School structure, I've learned over the last decade, is such a personal and group preference based mostly on tradition and how schools were organized when the parents in question were in school. You had a Grade 8 graduation with the corsets and flowers and dance with the 13-year-old valedictorian, you want your kids to experience those milestones as well. It's easy to understand.
It provides some space to look at one of the more common school organizational changes happening in Ontario in recent years, the move to 7-12 schools. Such a conversation and decision is underway in North Bay. Those with memory of some of earliest posts would remember I'm a supporter of the 7-12 model, with the heavy and fulsome full disclosure that I'm a graduate of a 7-OAC school.
While it can be easier to find efficiencies and avoid the headache of having a hundred different school structures, I strongly believe the accommodation review process is an ideal setting for a community to have its say on whether and how it wants to consider alternate school organization for its children. If it makes sense to the largest amount of impacted students, that committee needs to give it serious consideration and then advocate for it among trustees.

On persistance vs. knowing when to call it a day

Regular readers here will be well aware of both issues I'm commenting on in this post-- the ongoing campaign to save Niagara District Secondary School in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake from closure and the imbroglio the Bluewater District School Board has been involved in for approximately the past year as a result of some plagiarism, a lack of consultation on the cancellation of intermediate rotary classes and some other issues.
As I've become more familiar with both, I've stuck my nose out and also commented on how I feel some of the players in both issues are, er, becoming so dedicated to the cause they may not realize they've taken it far beyond where it should go. My opinion on the NOTL council decision to face the District School Board of Niagara at the Ontario Municipal Board in April is pretty clear. More recently, the decision of Bluewater opponents to keep trying to find a new venue to air their grievances was also an opportunity to comment on the efficacy or futility of the strategy.
Just before the weekend -- posted Friday, published in Saturday papers -- the Sun Times and the Standard had updates on both issues.
From the Standard's piece:
In an eight-page missive handed out at a board meeting this week, Thorold-Pelham trustee Gary Atamanyk argues the motion passed in June 2008 to close NDSS after this school year is not legal because the board did not follow proper procedure.
"I believe a judicial review is a necessity," Atamanyk wrote. "Without there being a speedy resolution of all questions through a judicial review, I would anticipate that responsible parents throughout the DSBN may seek to look out for the best interests of their children by considering the options of home schooling, private schools or our co-terminus (Catholic) board's offerings. A loss of students would affect the total funding for the entire DSBN."
Tuesday's write-up is the third in a series of "opinions" about the handling of NDSS's fate that Atamanyk has quietly passed to board staff, trustees and the media at board meetings.
They will continue until someone volunteers to take on the DSBN via the legal system, Atamanyk said.
A judicial review is the only avenue available past an accommodation review and the petitioned administrative review of the process by a ministry appointed adviser. A person or group petitions the court in Toronto to review the matter and outlines the basis in law that wasn't followed or was incorrectly interpreted. It has happened a handful of times in the past decade, and most of the decisions I've read (a Thames Valley one, a few Ottawa-Carleton ones) side with the board. Which, in the Thames Valley case, led to one executive superintendent's continual reminder to all that the school-closure process in place at the time (pre-Kennedy moratorium request) was "court tested."
The key here? Atamanyk needs a knight in legal robes -- or a knight willing to hire someone else in legal robes -- to step forward and do his dirty work for him. Will he find one?
From the Sun Times:
"Premier, families are weeping in Bluewater. Help them," said a Jan. 11 letter to the premier, signed by Peter Ferguson.
"We continue to get calls from parents who are weeping on the phone because their children are in jeopardy," he said yesterday in an interview.
A woman who called him this week cried on the phone because her son was bullied and assaulted in the washroom and the response by his teacher, principal and the police was unsatisfactory, Ferguson said.
"The board is not being held to account for all the weeping children — and apparently (Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP) Larry Miller thinks they now number something in the range of 500 — who have already been damaged."
The group will decide this week when it will approach the ombudsman, Ferguson said.
"Our hope is that the ombudsman would not get involved," Ferguson said. "But certainly our hope and intention is that the premier will meet his responsibilities and institute the inquiry."
The commission of inquiry should investigate all complaints against the board and the conduct of the board, he said.
Well, I do hope reporter Scott Dunn asked Ferguson if he could speak with these 'weeping families.' The ones that are so prevalent in Bluewater the group of nine who signed the letter requesting the premier call an inquiry included a bunch of people who likely don't have children in the system anymore and one person who doesn't even live in the district? Are they among the supposed 'over 500' who've contacted the area MP? I become increasingly cynical of these sorts of statements when I've been writing about an issue for a while, and I've reached that point here. If there are SO many opposed, weeping, at wit's end and running away from the Bluewater board's schools, well, where the hell are they? Why do we only keep hearing from the same handful of people?
I do hope the premier actually gets this letter -- I heard last week on the day the Sun Times published the article on the request for an inquiry, neither the premier's office or the ministry had received any correspondence from Ferguson with the request.
In a reflective moment however, I wonder if perhaps I've just become too cynical, too jaded, too tired with these two particular narratives.
Are the players being persistent in the face of these massive roadblocks to reason? Or are these advocates simply unaware their particular time for battle has passed and that every subsequent action just makes paying any reasonable attention to their cause an increasingly moot point?
I lean to the latter, but hope it's not because my own tendency to veer towards cynicism is what's taking me there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

NDSS coverage update No. 4

A quick update from last week, courtesy the St. Catharines Standard. The District School Board of Niagara and the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake met to see if there is any resolution available that might avoid an Ontario Municipal Board hearing over a Virgil site for a new school.
The pre-hearing conference was held to set a date for any eventual hearing, which would come the week of April 12.
From the first article:
The offer to pick up the pen together to redraw the map of Virgil was "better than nothing," said Town Coun. Gary Zalepa, who attended Tuesday's meeting called by Hoshizaki.
A boundary change will offer up about four acres of developable land if approved by the province.
That combined with properties to be vacated by the board later this year, including Virgil School and Laura Secord School in Queenston, would give the town more room to build than the possible 32 lots at the contentious Line 2 site, said Trustee Lynn Campbell, who was also at the table Tuesday.
"It's welcomed," Zalepa said. "I don't know how much influence they will have in doing that, but there's no hurt in exploring that."
Still, the gesture wasn't enough to stave off an Ontario Municipal Board hearing to settle a dispute about zoning for the new school.
The town would prefer it be built at Niagara District Secondary School, which is set to close in June, even though that would infringe on Parliament Oak School's student catchment area.
I got some interesting e-mails from people in the area regarding Zalepa and his interests in Parliament Oak, so the comments here seem even more interesting as a result. I'll admit I've not had the time to do a detailed review of all the documents posted, but the local weekly was involved again and there are allegations that statements made by council have been glossed over. The folks over at SOS have laid out a nice time line of all the media coverage (including related posts here) and both council and school board items.
The town and board should avoid this OMB hearing-- it's in no one's interest and would only delay the anticipated schedule for construction of what by all accounts is a needed facility.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bluewater update No. 17

Further to some commentary after the last update on the letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty requesting an inquiry: the Sun Times did publish an article on the squabbling between the local MP and MPP regarding what's been happening at the board.
(MPP Bill) Murdoch said he sees no great problems within the board, and he asked Miller "not to get involved" last spring.
"There was no problem here. It was a made-up problem by (MP) Larry Miller and the newspaper and a handful of people," Murdoch said in an interview Thursday. "I think it's terrible what's went on. The media and Larry Miller have cooked this all up and blamed the board."
While education is a provincial, not federal, responsibility, Murdoch, the longtime Progressive Conservative MPP, said he has been silent throughout the controversy both because it's not his job to criticize officials elected in another level of government and because Miller stepped in.
Miller said yesterday he was not interfering in provincial politics, but responding to a problem within the board and within his riding. Education funding and the question of whether McGuinty should launch an investigation are provincial matters and Miller said comment would be inappropriate.
"I'm not touching that. But the issue of accountability, intimidation and all the other crap that goes with it is coming from Bluewater school board and it's in my riding and I've been approached by a huge amount of people," he said. "Yes, education is under the provincial government. This isn't just about education. It's a localized issue. I think most people understand that."
All of which is fine and lovely. It ignores the bigger item here and what should remain a priority for the time being-- implementation of the recommendations in the report released in the fall. This, to borrow from Miller, is smoke and mirrors.

Today's the big day

At the exact moment I type this, Premier Dalton McGuinty and Education Minister Kathleen Wynne are making virtually simultaneous announcements regarding the Sept. 2010 allotment of full-day kindergarten sites.
The reporting over the past day on this has been very curious. Many pushed out stories when the news came out Monday the announcement would be coming Tuesday-- a few days earlier than the last date I'd heard for the announcement (Friday, Jan. 15). I was surprised by the 'new' flavour to many of the stories. Boards had to submit their candidates for year one back on Nov. 30, and there was plenty of reporting at the time across the province in those areas where boards released the list of candidate sites.
However on Monday, many things I spied were written as though, "Surprise! The government is announcing 600 sites!!" CTV Ottawa even, at one point, tweeted it had the list of sites for the Ottawa boards. That was deceiving, as it only re-published the list of candidate sites submitted to the ministry back in November.
After the announcements, local government MPPs within each district will release the names of the schools funded for the first year of the program. These are sites concentrated in lower-income areas that have the available 'purpose-built' space.
More on this later.

The list has been posted on the ministry website.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bluewater update No. 16

Another update, yet again beaten to the punch by the folks over at MendEd-- some of whom are apparently signatories to the letter sent to Premier Dalton McGuinty calling for a commission of inquiry into the Bluewater District School Board. A draft of the letter, without signatories, is posted at MendEd. It was also written up in the Sun Times. From the draft letter written by Peter Ferguson (the same person who filed the plagiarism complaint against superintendents and called in the OPP.
This past spring, when the public’s fury with the board’s conduct coalesced, your Minister of Education did not establish an arm’s-length inquiry into both sides of the problem. Instead she sent a technician to aid the board, saying repeatedly that she would vigorously support the board, and the board only.
This technician refused to speak with anyone who was not a member of the board, the administration or some like institutional organization. He refused to speak with the public or any citizen. Public concerns were systematically scorned.
From the article:
Nine people signed a letter to McGuinty in mid-December saying an inquiry into the board's activities is necessary and that he had until Jan. 8 to take action.
The nine include Lesa McDougal, the founder of the Bluewater Citizens for Education, and John Fearnall, the founder of MendEd:Mending Education, local action groups, and Deborah Whipple of Aurora, the chairwoman of the Parents of Gifted Advocacy Network.
The article quotes Ferguson but neglects to mention he's appears to be the principal author of the letter requesting the inquiry.
This leaves me wondering whether Ferguson read the report received by trustees in November. I wonder-- is that the very same "technician" referred to in the letter who was involved in this report? The report that spoke to families who've left the board's schools? That surveyed members of the public? That held public meetings where, as best as I can tell from this post, any member of the public was able to speak?
What are these people still seeking an inquiry into?
Further, in their nine demands -- to be responded to by Friday -- they ask for "redress where damage has been done," and that a "proper" complaints procedure be established for the future.
Yes, the BDSB trustees haven't (at least not as I can tell through the media) indicated how they will implement the recommendations of the November report. They should be held accountable to implementing -- or at least beginning the process -- those recommendations.
What good, other than ego, would an inquiry do? Particularly when we're 10 months away from an election? If Ferguson and his supporters truly don't want "trustees to waste further effort on a venture for which they are simply not ethically competent," well, put more of your money where your mouth is. Nominations for Bluewater District School Board trustee opened Monday.

If you can get the support to get elected, then you can implement all the changes you want, bring "redress" to the afflicted and move on.

The forgotten filers

Jan. 4 was the first day in Ontario that one could file his/her nomination papers and run for trustee within a publicly funded school board. The nomination period closes at 2 p.m. on Sept. 10 and voting day across the province for civic politicians and school board trustees is set for Oct. 25.
While there was a plethora of coverage across Ontario on the early birds filing for municipal office, there was scant if any on those who might be filing for trustee. No big surprise, even though some of these trustees oversee budgets that are larger than any of the municipalities within their district. For example, the public school board I cover, with a annual budget of over $700 million easily outweighs any local council I cover-- the County of Oxford would have the largest budget in my coverage area and it sits at approx $150 million. I don't know the City of London's total budget (including all federal and provincial transfers, not just the taxpayer levy) but if it's over $700 million it's not by much. Yes, yes... I am well aware trustees don't have all the supposed flexibility that councils do in determining budgets, but it's still one of the things they are responsible for and held to account over.
With the changes in Bill 177 and the pending provincial-interest regulations, those elected in this vote will be a cohort of trustees that have a lot of work ahead of them in terms of governing directors of education and board staff members through the process of planning, setting and being held accountable for all sorts of targets. Will the passage of the bill weed out trustees?
In many districts, this year's election is also the first opportunity for those communities still angry about school-closure decisions to enforce a consequence on trustees-- particularly in cases where the trustee(s) elected from the area supported a controversial closure. Will there be a slate of anti-closure trustees elected across the province? This vote will come in the middle of reviews at a number of boards and could -- might -- change the direction / flavour / outcome of those reviews. I've already noticed one trustee who's started abstaining from any vote relating to an accommodation review. The same trustee who, in the first round of reviews before her board, voted in favour of some closures (urban and rural) and voted against others (rural). I was struck with interest by her sudden decision to abstain from a series of votes relating to two reviews in December 2009.
Further, in those boards that seem to have courted controversy this past term -- ie: Bluewater, Toronto District Catholic -- which incumbents will run again and who will rise above the fray to challenge them?
Coverage can be key in trustee elections since very rarely to never are opportunities created for public all-candidate trustee debates. Outside of any promotion / advertising / campaigning a particular candidate might decide to take on, media often offer the only wide-scale, accessible platform for voters to get to know their candidates. We can also seriously impact outcomes-- the first trustee vote I covered saw an opportunity to call a candidate on a statement he made regarding his attendance at board meetings. On election night, he subsequently commented on the impact of newspaper headlines on his loss. In the 2006 vote, the London Free Press did some routine background checking on a Catholic school board trustee candidate and uncovered a less-than-glamorous past that led to that candidate's loss.
The election will add some additional, er, spice, to the coming 10 months of K-12 education in this province. I look forward to it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On being watched

I received a most intriguing e-mail a few days ago, as I was returning from holidays and getting prepped for a weekend shift at the newspaper. It comes from the University of Toronto / Ontario Studies in Education's Research Supporting Practice in Education department, which has setup a 'Facts in Education' project.
From the e-mail and web page:
Facts in Education aims to correct significant factual errors about education that appear in various news media sources across Canada, and to create wide awareness of the correct information. We are a non-partisan effort and are not affiliated with any particular position, opinion or organization.  We respect the right of any commentator to hold their own views and opinions.  We will not be taking issue with the expression of opinion.  Rather we are solely concerned with stories that are inconsistent with the available evidence and are therefore misleading to those who read, see or hear them.  For example, we sometimes see stories contending that nobody fails in schools any more.  This is completely inconsistent with the evidence, which clearly shows that a large number of students fail courses and fail to graduate in a timely way. 
These distinguished panellists will be working with our team in order to ensure that our response to factual errors contains the actual facts in education as supported by empirical evidence.  We will be distributing our response to the original media source of the story as well as to various other media outlets, and to educational stakeholders in Ontario.
The purpose of this project is not to critique any journalist or news outlet, but simply to ensure that people are aware of the real Facts in Education, facts which are backed by substantial research.  In this respect, we invite you to contact us if you have any questions or comments or if there is something we can do to support your coverage of educational issues in Canada.
The project's participants are a who's who of education in this country (or at least this province), with the RSPE headed by two-time Ontario deputy minister of education Ben Levin, who also held numerous high-level positions in Manitoba prior to coming to Ontario. Others involved include Avis Glaze, Charles Pascal, a few current and former ministry people and other OISE folks.
The project also has a blog, which I'll be putting up on the blogroll as soon as this is posted. So far, it has one post on an erroneous charter-school reference in a Winnipeg Free Press article from last month.
Kudos to those involved in this project, and I'll say in complete and utter self-interest I hope my reporting never makes the list.

Moira MacDonald wrote about this Wednesday-- we were on the same wave length for the most part.