Public input essential

meeting parent speaks“The proposed changes to the Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines are … dismissive of the people and communities the Ministry of Education, and the Government of Ontario at large, has been elected to serve.”    A letter to: Premier of Ontario, Hon. Kathleen Wynne & Minister of Education, Hon. Liz Sandals

November 18, 2014  Reanda Doornink, Near North District School Board, writes:
I am writing to express my concern and dismay over the proposed changes to the Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines recently announced by the Ministry of Education. After participating in an ARC within my own community, I find a number of the proposals both counter-intuitive and disturbing. Of primary concern is the reduction of public consultation, both in time and input. While I agree with some of the identified needs for revision, the proposed changes appear to accommodate the needs of school boards more than the needs of Municipalities, parents and the broader community. My primary concerns are as follows:

 

Reduction of time: As someone who invested quite heavily in our Board’s recent ARC, I find it curious and somewhat surprising that anyone would describe the time spent as wasted. Our Board has recently completed several ARCs and in earlier consultations there was a dearth of information made available to the public, while in later ones there was a flood. Both situations required a great deal of time to discover and parse the information – time which this proposal intends to reduce.

Removal of community and economic value: Residing in a rural area of our province, I find it inexplicable that while some government Ministries are investing heavily to support and grow our communities, another refuses to acknowledge that its decisions directly affect the success or failure of those investments. When the only school closes in a small community, that community will collapse regardless of how much money is invested in other sectors. As a distributor of tax payers’ contributions, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Education to account for this need and to accept their position in the broader scheme. Crying foul when asked to support communities who fund the Ministry is unacceptable.
Bypassing of process: Allowing boards to bypass the ARC process entirely if they choose is deeply worrisome. Yes, these are contentious issues; yes, they take time; and yes, they have a cost. None of these reasons is sufficient to expedite the process. School Boards are already in a position to freely move students between schools, for instance putting 7 & 8 students into high schools. In our recent ARC, this was one of the greatest concerns for the communities involved. A proposal put forward by the Committee eliminated the need to move those students, allowed for the closure of one school and also increased the student population to almost capacity at the other schools under review. This ARC recommendation was the proposal our Trustees supported. Had there been no ARC in our case, this solution would not have arisen and the Board Administrative proposal would have taken effect, a solution highly disagreeable to the broader community. Need I remind the Ministry – the properties in question are not ‘yours’ to disperse, but ‘ours’.
There were also a number of inconsistencies within the proposed changes themselves. The removal of community and economic value from the Reports and School Information Profiles (SIP) while at the same time requiring Municipal input into the creation of the SIPs seems worse than useless – ask the value of schools and then disregard that value entirely.

 

As regards Boards providing more than one or more options to its proposal, my understanding is that this was always required (“school boards must present alternate accommodation plans for the students of the school(s) as part of the ARC review.” Ministry of Education, Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines, 2009). Further, to ask a Board to prove a negative, as in the case of partnerships, would seem to be an exercise in futility. Better to require that time is spent creating those partnerships rather than disputing them.

“ARCs must include membership from the broader community.” The proposed changes to this piece of the guidelines are fatuous – the current guideline is already quite clear with the inclusion of the word ‘must’, and the newly stated requirement for ‘broader community feedback’ is belied by the reduced number of public meetings proposed and the allowance of exceptions to this process, as well as the loss of community and economic value in the SIPs.
Under the new proposal, “ARCs would focus on being a conduit for information sharing between the school board and the affected school communities.” Having the members of an ARC act as conduits to, instead of advocates for, their communities strikes me as having the public do the Ministry and Board’s job.
The proposed changes to the Accommodation Review process appear to be a reaction to an uncomfortable truth. School closures are highly contentious. Rather than pulling away from public engagement, the Ministry would be better served increasing engagement thereby improving relations between school boards and those they serve. Our points of contention were not between different communities but between communities and a government agency which struggles to understand and value the nature of its rural communities. All of the involved communities worked together to ensure that no one community lost its only school. While the process was extremely contentious and fractious at times, I believe all parties came away with a greater understanding and respect for the issues at hand. ARCs within our province have consistently and effectively countered board administrative reasoning in the matter of school closings. Solutions created by the brain trust to be found within the broader community can often be more effective and sustainable, as well as being supported by the majority of those affected directly.
I urge our elected officials to act in the best interests of their constituents. The proposed changes to the PARG are at best short sighted and at worst dismissive of the people and communities the Ministry of Education, and the Government of Ontario at large, has been elected to serve.
Please, do not act upon the proposed changes – we can do better.

 
Sincerely,
Reanda Doornink
South River, ON P0A 1X0