Friday, October 1, 2010

And so it ends. Or does it?

Saw both news alerts on this Thursday and also got an e-mail or two on it. The Friends of NDSS (Niagara District Secondary School) dropped the judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the high school earlier this year. From the Standard, who have provided the most consistent coverage of this entire saga:
The Friends of NDSS issued a statement saying dropping the legal fight doesn't change the fact they believed they were wronged by the DSBN "in the past several years of neglect that led to the closure of Niagara District Secondary School."
"We had seriously hoped that the DSBN would be accountable to someone — if not the taxpayer and not the ministry, then perhaps the court of law," they stated.
Georgina Keller, a spokeswoman for the group who was named on the application for judicial review, said the battle has been emotional and stressful.
"It's been a long battle, but it's time to move on," she said.
"We will continue to be watchdogs of the DSBN. We've done too much to stop now."
I'm happy the group came to a reasonable conclusion that in its battle to prove it was "right" and the school board was "wrong," that a judicial review wouldn't provide the solace the community was seeking. As I'd opined here previously, that's not what a judicial review is meant to accomplish. The comments at the end of the article indicating the fight isn't over just provide a contradiction to the claim the group is moving on and accepting the school's closure. It confuses me when people participate in a process and then get caustic only after the ensuing decision is made and it's one they disagree with.
But what can we learn from this? Well, given that accommodation reviews are not going to stop anytime soon (unless we all start having many, many more babies and money starts growing on trees to update tired school facilities built 50 years ago), communities need to know what can be done and more importantly, what shouldn't be done.
The decision that led to NDSS' closure stands out for its uniqueness. Faced with a community that said it could grow enrolment at its school, trustees provided an opportunity to do so. Was it too short of a time line? Was it destined to fail? No doubt many would answer yes to both those questions since the school's enrolment didn't reach the target set by trustees. When you don't reach a goal, it's easy to use hindsight to claim the challenge was unfair. Only when it became clear that the enrolment target wasn't going to be reached was the board then faced with a steady stream of last-minute, desperate attempts to keep the inevitable from happening. The application for judicial review illustrated this to a tee-- the main reason the related request for an injunction to the school's closure was turned down was because it was filed two years after the board vote and only heard within weeks of the school's official closing date.
Is your community facing the prospect of a pending school-closure review?
If you're in an English-language school in southern Ontario, ask yourselves whether your elementary school is approaching 100 full-time students or your high school is under 400. If the enrolment trend is heading downwards (looking at five to 10 years of data) and population projections for school-aged children aren't showing any type of increase that could erase the history of decline and provide a stable population, don't wait until the trustee vote to form a review committee. Start meeting with trustees, community groups, your local municipal council, etc. This is the best time for the conversation to begin on how to sustainably grow the population of school-aged children in your community. It's also a great time to see where potential partners might exist to help renew the facility (if this is a concern).
When / if the review gets struck, for the love of a duck, participate. Read the information voraciously, ask plenty of questions. Develop comprehensive alternate recommendations and ensure the committee's ability to receive the requisite data it needs to develop these is not ignored. Don't neglect the board's need to serve all its students, across all its schools in all communities. Your community doesn't have an exclusive hold on good teachers, innovative programs, involved families and the sense of community-- this exists in varying shapes, sizes and flavours in every school. Don't aim for the status quo-- if the status quo was working, the review would never have begun.
Remember the review is not taking a trustee's job away from her/him. It's the board of trustees' responsibility to weigh all the information and recommendations received from its staff members and the committee and make what it determines is the best decision.
If they make a decision you don't agree with and you feel there was an abuse of process, petition for an administrative review. Remember these aren't meant to retry the evidence/recommendations, but to determine whether the board was negligent in its duties to conduct a public process and receive public input through the committee and subsequent public presentations.
As NDSS learned, timing is of the essence. I have no doubt, as stated in the article, that if the judicial review and application for an injunction had been launched in 2008 and not in 2010, the justice(s) would have had a more substantial opportunity to frame a different set of decisions.