Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Putting it to paper in the Thames Valley

My colleague Debora Van Brenk at the London Free Press tweeted about this earlier in the day and the article was online several hours later. The hubbub was that the Thames Valley District School Board had signed a letter of agreement with the County of Middlesex regarding the inclusions of county municipalities in the school board's capital planning process.
While I couldn't find the letter of agreement online at Middlesex, the County of Elgin was due to consider the same letter of agreement Tuesday evening and its document is here. The school board's own release on the matter is here.
When I first read Deb's tweet, I was somewhat skeptical of what this agreement truly was about. Unlike Deb (or anyone writing about education right now at the Freeps), I was in the TVDSB board room when the presentations, delegations and various different votes on Middlesex County schools took place just about two years ago. That's not meant as a dig at any of the reporters at the Freeps, it's just an acknowledgment that it's difficult to know the context of an issue when your newsroom wasn't present and didn't report on most of the decisions at play.
Once I actually read the letter of agreement, it didn't strike me as that revolutionary. Remember the policy that was released in draft form by former education minister Kathleen Wynne in August 2009 and then released in final form by the current minister in February? Add to that the facility partnerships policy developed by the TVDSB and we're not exactly getting into rocket science. The school board and municipalities are just agreeing that they will abide by the Ministry of Education guideline, which lead to the local policy. For the record, the TVDSB released the list (it's a large file, but the report starts on p. 105) of "appropriate" facilities for partnership back in June and it landed with a thud because no one was paying attention. It put it all onto a section of its website too.
Further context?
This board was one a few across Ontario that maintained a capital planning advisory committee (CPAC). Though always confusing to trustees and its own members, CPAC was created to provide advice to trustees on when/where to proceed with school-closure reviews. After the annual accommodation report was received by trustees, they would forward it to the CPAC for review and comment. When the CPAC report came back to the full board of trustees, they would then take any other steps towards creating reviews. A roundabout way of saying the board already had a mechanism in place to receive opinion and advice on school closures, with representation from all municipalities in the district (including Middlesex and Elgin).
What happened?
Well, trustees didn't follow the advice they received from CPACs on the establishment of school-closure reviews in these contested areas. They voted to set them up. Then the review committee reports (and some of the best I've read with alternative options came from Middlesex) were given to trustees, who read and considered them. At the end of the day, trustees still voted to close those schools.
So, in comes the Community Schools Alliance. In come the guidelines. All of which has led to these letters of agreements. Don't get me wrong-- I think it's always a good idea to put things into agreements, policies and procedures so people are clear on what's expected of certain processes.
But at the end of the day, after much ballyhooing, will anything change? The TVDSB will still likely reach a point where its trustees will have to consider closing schools in all areas of the district (there are five reviews happening, right now, and all have municipal reps on them). I don't mean the ones the new board will vote on early in its term. I mean the next round (round four for this board) after that. The round that will include all of this municipal and community consultation.
Will it stop school closures? Unlikely.
Will it stop municipalities and communities complaining about school closures? Doubtful.
What I would hope it does is that by having these agreements in place, municipalities can respect the process. If they still disagree after the board has made its decisions, they'll be satiated they were part of the process and had their input duly considered. However, given each of these municipalities had that opportunity before (though in a slightly different way) and they're still complaining, how will these agreements change that?