Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Throwing NDSS' future to the court

The jaw did drop, honestly, when this news alert from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Advance crossed the inbox this afternoon. The Niagara District Secondary School supporters are petitioning the Ontario Superior Court of Justice's divisional court to conduct a judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the high school. The school closed its doors two weeks ago.
They have hired a Toronto lawyer and filed an affidavit outlining "many unaccountable and unacceptable actions" by the DSBN going back a decade—actions which have led to the closure of Niagara on the Lake's only secondary school, said spokesperson Sandra Cowan.
It was an unwillingness to communicate, on the part of the school board and the ministry, that led to the launching of a legal battle, said Cowan.
None of the information in the affidavit filed with the request for a review is new, she said—it was all in the brief the town compiled and sent to the Minister of Education.
"Some of it deals with points of order and the procedures of voting—the points trustee Gary Atamanyk has been making. Also it brings attention to some of the actions of the school board over the last 10 years and the indications that the closure of NDSS had been predetermined before the last accommodation review took place."
Cowan is quoted later in the article explaining that yes, while the school closed at the end of June, this request is to preserve the presence of a high school in NOTL for future students.
I struggle to understand this decision. Though it's been a while since I did so, I spent some time reviewing the decisions of the divisional court on school closures that are available online (not all are published online). I read the decisions regarding Arthur District High School / Upper Grand DSB (court did not overturn closure); Lynden Public School / Hamilton-Wentworth DSB (court did not overturn closure); and Seaforth-area schools / Avon Maitland DSB (request for interim relief from closure not granted). Within each of these decisions there are several other cases cited but not online where boards made decisions where the court ruled either no public input of any kind took place, or that a decision was made in secret outside the public eye.
I am also aware of a local case in my coverage area, not posted online, where the community took the Thames Valley District School Board to the divisional court over its decision to close two schools in Woodstock. The court sided with the board, providing a former executive superintendent of operations the motivation to continually remind anyone who cared to listen (until the Gerard Kennedy requested school-closure moratorium) that the board's accommodation review process was "court-tested."
The current first line of appeal, such as it is, is for the appointment of an administrative review of a board's decision (which was announced for NDSS in October 2008 and completed in February 2009). These reviews, as flawed as some say they are, concentrate on whether or not the school board was compliant with the provincial guidelines (in NDSS' case, the original 2006 ones) and its own locally developed pupil accommodation policy.
I would think asking the court to review this element would be a moot point, since Joan Green already determined that to be the case. If the intent is to get the court to rule on the rat's nest of motions, amendments, etc. from the June 2008 meeting where the decision was made to grant NDSS until Oct. 31, 2009 to reach 350 bodies, that might be a different case. Care needs to be taken with explaining this to the community-- it's a judicial review of what's been done, not necessarily an opportunity to present evidence not heard in the past, or to take another stab at arguing the merits of the DSBN's decision. The decision in the Seaforth review (and in milder language in the others) is quite clear it's not the court's intent to rule on the merits of keeping the school open or letting it close. The court's role is to review whether there was an abuse of process.
I have serious doubts the community will succeed in this measure (though, no worries, I will eat crow in this space if that's the case).
Meanwhile, as the article mentions, NDSS' current students have made their choices for the fall. They'll be at those schools starting in September.


John said...

This appears to be mostly a case of disgruntled parents wanting their local high school kept open in spite of compelling evidence that it should be closed. Given that keeping open schools surplus to need imposes a very real cost on the school board, and the loss to everyone else of how the money could be used better, I hope the courts stick to the same line they've taken in the other cases.
This is really a case of benefitting the system as a whole rather than catering to a group who simply want their school kept open, needed or not.

Banderblogger said...

We are going to hear about a great many more cases like this after October 25. Many school boards have purposely put off beginning school needs surveys or releasing results of such surveys until after the municipal elections on October 25. This prevents trustee candidates from running on keep-our-schools-open platforms that will later haunt the board when they are forced to close schools due to budgetary constraints.
Personally, I feel for those leaving in smaller communities who will lose their only school. On the other hand, aside from financial reasons, there comes a point (with mixed-grade classes and limited course options) where a too-small school actually robs students of certain academic and social opportunities.
Things are going to get messy in small communities across the province over the next year.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting and ongoing news item/event in NOTL. Yes, there is emotion, as would be expected. However, my understanding is that the community has over 800 high school aged children. Only 250, or so, chose to attend NDSS. Why? The reports and articles I have read lean towards a general lack of investment by the local school board, resulting in parents looking for better (aka newer) facilities in larger neighbouring communities. So sad to see small communities failing their youth.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 15 July 09:45
You're right, approximately, on the high school-aged body count within the NDSS attendance area. That's an all-in figure though, including those who have chosen Catholic high schools and Eden.

I don't think the community was ignorant to the cost factor. Its arguments were that the board purposely kept creating situations that disadvantaged NDSS and kept St. Catharines schools fuller. If NDSS reached its potential in attracting more students choosing the public school board system, it's been their belief the target would have fallen on another school.

I agree either by design or by conscious choice, many boards would start their next cycle of accommodation reviews after the election. However I'm weary of making blanket statements as I know many boards currently have reviews underway that would not come to a conclusion until after the election or after the new term of trustees take their oaths of office. I also don't think it will dissuade candidates from coming forward on a 'no school closure' platform, as I'm anecdotally aware of more than a few who have already filed their papers and are intending to campaign on such a platform.

You're right however, in saying this is a challenge the current and next terms of trustees cannot avoid. When you combine stubbornly stagnant birth and fertility rates outside those areas benefiting from immigration with an ever-growing list of buildings that are reaching an age where they cannot appropriately accommodate efficient programming, this is not a trend that will see an end in the next five years or so. Boards can either choose to maintain buildings at the cost of better programming, or make some difficult decisions and consolidate so they can reinvest in program.


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you John. I live in NOTL and we are not disgruntled parents. Our issues are with the imcompetence that calls itself DSBN. They have completely ignored all schools in NOTL and invested mostly in St. Catharines.
Roads go both ways, so why not close 1 of many empty schools in St. Catharines and bus them to NOTL. The cost should roughly be the same.

Half of the high school students go to the Catholic high school in St. Catharines - which is half empty too (but that's another story).

The DSBN can't wait to get their hands on the proceeds of selling 29 acres of land in NOTL.

Anonymous said...

there's no "half-empty" Catholic high school in St. Catharines.

Half of NOTL high school students do not go to the catholic high school in st. catharines; that would translate into almost 50% of Holy Cross population.

No formal request has ever been made to the Catholic board for stats according to NOTL town council minutes.

NDSS needs to close and people need to move on; high property taxes do not give a community the right to smaller schools; the Min. of Ed needs to force boads acroos the province to eliminate empty space. Problem is lots of NOTL live in oversized houses and think the taxpayer should fund similar wasteful schools.