Sunday, March 16, 2014

The problem with most single-system analyses

Saw this tweeted by a trusted source Sunday morning, but HuffPo published an op-ed by Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner on March 15 regarding merging Ontario's four publicly funded school boards into two.
As readers here would know, I support this, with the full disclosure I am the product of a Catholic school system. However since becoming a ratepayer in southwestern Ontario, I am an English public school system supporter (for whatever that's worth in a single-funder system).
Schreiner's POV in this latest piece hasn't changed since the last Ontario election. He's consistently been a single-school system supporter since taking the mantle of the GPO. The challenge, however, is that Schreiner leads with the financial argument. That argument in this case is based on a 2012 study by the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario Inc.
There are some assumptions in that report upon which the estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (my rounding) in annual savings are based that are false. They appear to be based on a presumption that many of the students currently in Catholic schools would leave the publicly funded system.
That's the only guess I have as to how the study identifies efficiencies of scale to the extent it does. It pegs $164.9 million in savings from the elimination of school board and governance grants if the province's Catholic district school boards were eliminated. This assumes the public systems taking over management and governance of the physical assets and students would be willing to have that added to their existing workloads.
I don't see that happening.
So you wouldn't see 100% of those governance and admin costs evaporate.
It pegs $169 million in student transportation cost savings-- by increasing walking distances across the province and the elimination of duplication. Again, I don't see the savings fully realized as school board transportation consortium shotgun weddings started taking place over five years ago and are pretty much fully implemented.
Which isn't to say some of the estimates presented aren't valid-- savings will happen in capital and facilities as we use the existing stock of school buildings more efficiently instead of having wide discrepancies between public and Catholic schools that lie within blocks of each other.
Where the financial argument falls apart is the economies of scale line, where it estimates $487.9K to $813.2K in annual savings.
If the number of students in the system remains stable after the merger of Catholic and public boards, the overall costs of running the system are not going to dramatically drop. Yes, there will be savings in some areas where there is duplication-- but overall you're not going to suddenly have 40% fewer principals or superintendents. The number of teachers and support staff would remain relatively static.
It surprises me neither party in this example has bothered to look at Quebec or Newfoundland and Labrador, where systems were merged. What sort of savings have materialized? You might find some concrete examples there instead of assumptions built on false premises.
It's an argument that side-steps the conversation that should be happening around publicly funded faith-based education in Ontario. Which is whether it should be publicly funded at all. Arguing it shouldn't be funded because of potential, flawed estimated savings is a weak foundation because those "savings" simply won't materialize to the stated degree should Ontario move to a single system.
Ontario is no longer part of a dominion where a minority of Christians need to have their faith protected from being extinguished by the majority of Christians. Those days have long passed-- defense of any faith should be a matter of instruction and practice within individual families and whatever congregation they choose to associate with, not a publicly funded educational system.
That -- and not money -- should be the No. 1 reason for a single system in Ontario. I've not yet heard a politician frame it in those terms, which is unfortunate because the other arguments only distract from what should be discussed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Changes ahead

As faithful readers here will remember, I was laid off from my most-recent job at the Expositor in Brantford, Ont. in December after 28 months as that outlet's primary city hall reporter.
In January, I accepted an offer to work at the Brant News, a Metroland weekly newspaper based in Brantford-- the general manager and editor moved quickly to offer me a position within their organization that would begin with a maternity leave contract and then carry the potential for full-time, permanent employment within the chain. I was set to return to Brantford and covering city hall starting March 3.
On Feb. 21 however, I accepted another offer of employment with the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall, Ont. Starting March 17, I will be the managing editor of this daily news organization, overseeing its newsroom and the digital and print content it produces.
It's another role taking me in a different direction than I'd anticipated over a decade ago when all I wanted to be was the best education reporter anywhere.
This topic is still a passion of mine, as is the sharing of clips and analysis of its issues and coverage elsewhere in the media. How I will manage this space is still somewhat unknown, but I hope to be able to continue to use it.

Three thoughts on Bill 122 committee hearings

Having read through the transcript of last week's committee hearing into Bill 122, there are only a few things that percolate to the surface for me as the legislation continues its move through the House.
The transcript is part of the bill's bundle of pages on the legislative website-- French-language skills will be useful as two of the deputations' remarks are in French as are a few of the questions asked afterwards. Kudos to the Globe and Mail and QP Briefing (owned by the Star) for having their reporters in the room. The focus of the Globe piece was heavy on conflict, of the potential for it even with this proposed bill in place.
With one exception (Clegg), I found the deputations' comments to be reasonable and pointed out the three things that percolated to the top for me.
  1. That Bill 122 enshrine the Crown as one of the parties in any provincial negotiations. Most every deputation spoke to how the Crown ultimately sets the terms of how this bargaining will look and feel like but doesn't define itself as a member at the table. Given the province, through its ministry and budget, funds the vast majority of the monies used by boards to pay their employees and run our publicly funded school systems, this appears as a glaring oversight. I don't know if its omission was an attempt to keep the Crown from being defined in any way as an employer around those tables-- but given the school board associations (for better or worse) represent their members and the unions represent the employees to be covered the people at the table with the money to make it all happen work for the Crown. It should be a defined member of those negotiations.
  2. That the central bargaining created by Bill 122 include all unionized employees who work within Ontario's schools. OSSTF, OECTA and CUPE spoke most strongly to these points, although they diverge slightly on the nuts and bolts of how each of the various smaller unions in the education sector could or should participate in central bargaining. Again, this is an oversight-- teachers' federations (who represent more than teachers) often steal the education-sector bargaining limelight. We in media tend to overlook and ignore the support workers, their contracts, their working conditions and such unless and until there's any job action. If central bargaining on key issues will be the law of the land for teachers' federations, then it should be so and include other unionized employee groups as well.
  3. What should be discussed locally and centrally? Bill 122 proposes the government/Crown make this definition. The unions all pointed out that in free collective bargaining, the first item for discussion is to decide what is to be discussed. I'm undecided on where to sit on this question. Given the sole-funder question, I see a day where it wouldn't be too far-fetched a premise to have central bargaining deal with 100% of education sector agreements. We're a long way from this, but Bill 122 is an important step. If school board associations become more structured and transparent, government remains accountable to its citizenry and the unions remain accountable to their members, then you have three equal partners making decisions that are consistently applied in every publicly funded school. Unless funding control were to return to local boards and unions de-amalgamated, there wouldn't be two equal partners at the table in local bargaining-- which in part was what happened from 1998-2002/3, when provincial table officers from headquarters were assigned to every district for bargaining to achieve provincewide objectives while school boards had no similar support.
All of the above, and anything else to be said about Bill 122 whether you agree with this assessment or not, is moot unless the bill actually makes it to royal assent. Given the larger chess pieces at play, I don't have the confidence that will happen before the spring budget which may lead to an election. Further, the government isn't out there pumping up the fact this is one of the key bills it wants to see passed before the next budget.
If left on the order paper, what happens in a post-election scenario? In a change of government scenario, how would the impending round of collective agreements be dealt with? If the Liberals are returned to office in whatever form (minority/majority), do they pick up 122 and re-introduce it with the goal of a quick passing?
Unless there are some big changes, the next Ontario election won't be about education, it will be about the Liberals' track record on other files. Neither opposition party has yet shed its timidity when it comes to challenging this government on its education track record in a way that will resonate with voters. Their final platforms will prove otherwise, but overall silence from the third party, countered with a pledge to halt implementation of full-day kindergarten from the official opposition are not going to make education the ballot question.
Clause-by-clause consideration is scheduled for March 11-12 to start March 5 In the midst of a few other things going on, I'll read through those transcripts and come back with any additional thoughts afterwards.