Will some Community Working Groups refuse to close schools?

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The Elementary Area 7 Community Working Group (CWG) held its eighth meeting on October 13 and was informed that the CWGs for Area 2 (New Edinburgh and Vanier, east to St-Laurent Blvd) and Area 3 (Old Ottawa South, the Glebe and Centre Town) have apparently decided not to recommend closing schools.

This led to an animated discussion. While the meeting eventually continued discussing various scenarios, there was some concern expressed about what might happen if the Area 7 CWG did recommend closing schools, Areas 2 and 3 did not, and the Board followed through on our recommendation. We lose because we played the game!

My own feeling is that we could end up being stooges for the provincial government and the school board, both of which will be happy to justify any school closures as the result of our "input", that a particular school closure was in a scenario that we "provided" them (whether or not we recommend it).

One of our people talked about trying to be more "creative". This sounds great, but the process has been stacked against finding alternative uses for excess space. Unless it is an existing daycare, the province insists that it be counted as classroom space, no matter what is being done with it.

This is obscene! The taxpayers of Ottawa paid for these schools a long time ago. They are a community resource and deserve to be considered as such. If there are other uses that are compatible with being co-located with a school (and that pay for the building maintenance) then the School Board and the school council should be able to decide whether or not to proceed. The provincial government can take a hike and stop treating the citizens of Ottawa like they are natives on the reservation.

One more note. The politicians and bureaucrats at Queen's Park have found that school closures doesn't resonate very well with the focus groups. The preferred term now is school "consolidation". Sounds much more practical, humane and business like, doesn't it?

-- Anonymous, October 14, 1998


This is the big week, with meetings on Monday, October 19 and Thursday, October 22. Will the Area 7 Community Working Group decide to spike this ad hoc consultation proces that is supposed to advise the School Board about which schools should be "consolidated?"

Let's put it this way. Do we decide to pull the trigger, or do we tell the School Board and (hopefully) the provincial government that they can do their own dirty work. Because any excuses we give them will be happily used. Why was this school closed? Because the community working group (CWG) included it as an "option", because the CWG had "reviewed" this scenario, because the CWG ranked it as the "least objectionable" of several scenarios. The provincial government will point to the school boards, and the school board can point to this six-week flurry of consultation as the basis for some wrenching decisions.

Or do subvert the whole process and use it to tell the school board why closing each school will be painful and present its own unique problems? My own preference at the moment is to use this soapbox to tell the citizens of Ottawa how this whole process is stacked against them. So here goes.

The quality of the Ottawa public schools has been a drawing card for families to live in the older, urban neighbourhoods. The variety of programs and the proximity of smaller schools has made the Ottawa school system an asset that people should value when describing why Ottawa is a good place to live. Having a school nearby helps the resale value of your house. If that school closes, or gets too many pupils crammed into it (with portable classrooms to handle the overflow), then the eventual impact on property values will be negative.

Along comes the provincial government and wants to save money on the yearly capital grant allocations it makes to school boards for new schools. It comes up with several new ideas. First, it will move to a system where it tells the boards to borrow the money and the provincial grant is used to pay part of the annual carrying cost of the loan. Over time, this will be a much more expensive option, but it allows you to leverage a lot of borrowing with a smaller up-front cost.

The second thing that the provincial government has decided to do is to tell school boards to surrender any unused schools to a provincial agency which will sell this "surplus" property and then dole the proceeds back out to those areas that need new schools. This is nothing more than confiscation. The ratepayers of Ottawa paid for these downtown schools years ago and deserve to keep them in their community for community purposes. The process is doubly unfair because the provincial government is rating each school at 100 per cent capacity. Previously, they used a 90 per cent capacity figure and the old Ottawa board used an 85 per cent figure when determining if a school was "full". To go to 100 per cent is absurd because it gives you no breathing room, for years when school populations rise and fall, and it guarantees you a system where school overflow will be housed in portable classrooms. This is progress?

-- Anonymous, October 18, 1998

October 19, 1998 - The Area 7 group spent a heated two hours questioning whether we should play along and submit a report that gives various scenarios of school closures, or refuse to sanction the closure of any school. A number of opinions also argued that some additional action, like going public with a press release, is desireable.

It began when the chair of the CWG, an engineer and repesentative of Hilson school, expressed his frustration about how repeated and long- standing requests for information from school board staff had been ignored and were unlikely to be answered. If the information is faulty or lacking, then making an informed decision is impossible. He asked how the group could ever proceed with this handicap to discuss various scenarios for school closures.

This became very pertinent last meeting, when the representative of Devonshire school, a K-6 early french immersion school, reported that he had found the school board staff calculation of the capacity of Devonshire had double counted the kindergarten rooms and resulted in 50 supposed extra pupil spaces that did not exist.

Add to that the growing disatisfaction with the rules of the process, that insists on calculating excess spaces on the basis of 100 per cent enrollment, an absurd assumption. The school board practise had been to use 85 per cent as a rule of thumb when determining extra spaces. The provincial department of education used 90 per cent.

If we simply recalculated excess pupil spaces on the basis of 90 per cent capacity, plus made realistic assumptions about the extra space demands of special education rooms and break-out rooms for second- language instruction, a large part of the excess space issue would simply vanish.

That these issues all have to be ignored is really getting under people's skins. Still, people feel we have to play the game and submit a report, for fear that the school board will act anyway before the end of December and move to close schools. If they do, better that we tell them what to close than the board making an even worse choice.

By Thursday, this determination to play out the process should soften. Will the meeting be a little more amenable to going public and complaining? Telling in as much graphic detail as posssible how closing schools is going to hurt communities and families.

-- Anonymous, October 19, 1998

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