Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Board outcomes- school closure

The board passed all the recommendations to consider closure for Eastwood, Parkdale, McCauley and the elementary program at Spruce Avenue in the city centre. In the Hardisty area, the board passed the recommendations to consider closure of Capilano and Fulton.

Here is a copy of the remarks I made early in the meeting:

Facts are facts even if they aren’t what we want to hear. We have excess space in schools- this is a fact. Some schools have such low enrolment that they are no longer financially or educationally sustainable. This, I would say, is also a fact. Within the next two years, nine new large schools will open along the outer edges of our city and when they do thousands of students who live closer to those schools than the schools they are currently attending, will migrate back to their neighbourhoods and leave our existing schools depleted. When these students leave, millions of dollars will exit our existing schools and hundreds of teachers will also shift places. There will be no additional dollars to offset these losses and our current problem of low enrolment schools will be much, much worse and more widespread. Almost every school in the District will be affected. The public is largely unaware of the enormity of this impending challenge.

Today we are looking at 11 schools and the recommendation is to close 5- almost half. This is a clear indication of how serious our administration feels the problem is and how strongly they are communicating the message: We have too many schools. We can’t keep operating them all.

I see two issues. First, and most important: what is the number of kids that need to be in a school in order to provide a high quality education, with appropriate grade groupings for learning, appropriate staff-student ratios, appropriate and varied programming to meet the needs of all kids, specialized rooms for options, libraries, somewhere to eat lunch, good support services and space for community partners like daycares or early learning sites.

The second issue is the size of our buildings and the cost to heat, light, and maintain them.

Because we receive our funding on a per pupil basis, we have quite logically assumed that the answer to both issues is related to student placement. Where the student goes, so goes the money. Where the student isn’t, the money isn’t.

But what if we separate these two ideas for a moment: educational decisions that are student-driven and building decisions that are operationally-driven.

If there is a small but educationally functional number of students in a big building, perhaps we need to right-size the building not right-size the kids. Wings or entire floors could be closed. For a relatively small cost, walls could be erected to hive the school off from the unused portion. This portion could be declared surplus to be leased, sold or turned over to other boards or the City of Edmonton as per our Joint Use Agreement. The school could continue to function in a smaller, more manageable footprint, and the community would benefit from the excess space being used in a sustainable and long-term manner.

Our problem is that we have persisted in believing that declining enrolment and space utilization in schools is entirely our problem to solve and as a single entity, with only one funder, we have allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner until it appears that only one option remains: school closure.

If we could rearrange our thinking and see this as a complex and multi-faceted issue that will require a complex and multi-faceted approach…what other options might appear?

EPSB is currently leasing space, from other providers, to meet some of our District needs. Have we examined how many of these leases could be cancelled and relocated into our excess space in schools, especially if entire wings of schools were closed and separated?

Have we approached potential partners like the provincial government, the City of Edmonton, other school boards, agencies, businesses and community leagues to discuss alternate solutions through joint ownership models?
Have we explored alternate revenue streams with communities- like special levies or donations- to help offset the increased costs of small schools?

Have we gone way outside the box to consider moving the adults instead of moving the kids? For instance, have we considered closing down the Blue Building, renting out this prime downtown real estate and moving central and board operations into schools?

Have we helped community schools retain more of the student population in their catchment (and thereby reduce our transportation costs and environmental footprint), by providing equal promotion and public validation to the local community school as a great choice for parents? Have we examined how excessively promoting schools that offer programs of choice and providing subsidized transportation to those schools may marginalize community schools and contribute to their demise?

The answer to these questions is, in my opinion: “No, not really.”

I have come to see that in some cases, with very small schools, closure may indeed be necessary, but I maintain that closures are not a wholesale solution to the problem of excess space.

Ahead of us, if we continue on this path, I see many, many school closures. Although no one will provide an estimate of how many schools must close, I can do some simple math to arrive at a guess. Each new K-9 ASAP schools has a capacity of 650 to 850, so we would need to close two medium-sized schools to offset each new school. That makes 18 medium sized schools. If you factor in that some of our small elementary schools have capacities in the 250 range, you might guess 20 schools need to close just to get us back to where we sit today. If we want to tackle the 30,000 excess spaces we have TODAY, before these new schools open…more schools will need to close. So add another 10? Or 15? But even after closing 35 schools (and all the heartache that would entail), we would hardly have put a dent in 30,000 excess spaces.

I do not believe it is in the best interests of students, of families, of communities and the reputation and long-term viability of Edmonton Public Schools to proceed with this drastic clear-cut of schools, without giving committed energy to exploring other options like right-sizing buildings and joint ownership models.

I will post how I voted on each recommendation and why in the next post.


Ken Chapman said...

There has to be a special case made for McCauley to keep open. Time for creativity to help keep that vulnerable community viable and a school is key to that happening.

gwyneth said...

I am a Calgary parent (my children are and have been publicly educated). Thank you for some excellent thoughts on how to keep community public schools available for all children.
I think the closure of schools should be a last resort after exploring all options. And you have offered some great solutions that should definitely be explored.
I question the thinking that a good education for elementary students can only be offered in a larger school setting. Does that mean that our home schooled children are getting a poor education? Personally, I think I had a great education in a rural school of 20 students. It certainly didn't hold me back academically. Extreme examples, I know, but we as a society have to ask the question - what is educationally, socially, and environmentally best for a 6 year old child?
Is walking to a neighborhood school, getting to know local families, building relationships, establishing identity with a sense of place and connection with people, in classes of 17 or less good for kids? I think so. For example, studies on childhood obesity in the UK have shown that children that walk to school are less likely to be obese than those who are in extra curricular activities.
There is so much to be said for the sense of community that comes from a neighborhood school
- I fear we are in danger of creating more societal problems in the name of "better education" ... and in the name of saving dollars - for what? What is a better use of money than supporting the fundamental structures of our society.
This is such an important discussion!

keep working on this, Sue.

Nancy Adamson Cavanaugh said...

Very tough decisions. However, the vote is to 'consider' and consideration is the role of the board, and doesn't presuppose an outcome. There are lots of pressures though from both sides, and an especially hard decision facing 2010 elections. Been there! Keep listening!