Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sector Review at Jasper Place

This morning I popped into the West 1 Sector Review consultation this morning at Jasper Place. I was seated at a table with some people from Crestwood, Parkview, Coronation/Grovenor. The room was sparsely populated (maybe 30 people?) and I was immediately struck by the enormous challenge facing this handful of people. On the table was a map of the West 1 sector (most of Ward C and some of Ward E, a huge area) complete with ACU/ACOL capacity numbers, current school enrolment numbers, location of leases, daycares, special programs, etc. The participants were given a handbook and asked to develop suggestions of how to move forward. In other words, they were being asked to suggest which schools should close.

The conversation was strained, as people struggled to understand what they were looking at and what it all meant. Of course, when faced with something this complex, people inevitably try to reduce it to something manageable. So they scanned for the smallest schools and looked nearby for schools that might be able to absorb their numbers. They looked for duplication in programming. They tried to evaluate how much the community valued the school based on the number of community use hours. In all cases, I encouraged people to look wider beyond this preliminary level of analysis. For instance, the number of community hours is not a direct and clear way to measure the value a community places on a school because some small schools cannot afford the evening custodian required to allow for community use. The Principal ultimately makes the decision  regarding how many hours are to be made available under the Joint Use Agreement. So the number of hours available and the number of hours used may have more to say about Principal preferences and budget constraints than true community value for a school.

As well, I noted immediately that people were quick to start making suggestions about combinations (and closures) for schools they were not connected to. Invariably, when I asked if anyone had been inside the schools they were suggesting, or if they knew anything about the particular needs of those students, the answer was "no". 

I left (early, in order to drive my son to hockey) questioning the value of this input for the next board of trustees. If the results come back that a majority of participants favoured closing school X and Y- is that because there was no one participating from school X and Y? Was that suggestion based on a deep understanding of the impacts of that recommendation or a preliminary scan of a map on a rushed Saturday morning? During the last round of closures, people asked us to think beyond numbers. But this is exactly what the conversation is being reduced to again. Don't get me wrong: I believe in public participation and public engagement, but I really wonder if we are setting people up to make suggestions based on a narrow view, driven in large part by self-interest.

What is the perfect process for this difficult challenge? I don't know. We came up with the sector review idea based on feedback that the sustainability review process was flawed and didn't allow for meaningful input. We were, believe it or not, trying to improve things. Likewise, the sustainability process was developed based on feedback that the previous process was flawed. Perhaps Trustee Gibeault is right when he writes in his blog, Secrets of a School Board, that there is NO process which people will like, if the final outcome is school closures. Have we set ourselves an impossible task even thinking that we could develop such a process?

Perhaps the Edmonton Federation for Community Leagues is quite right when it suggests that we've started this entire process with the wrong question. Instead of saying, in essence, "Help us decide which schools should close", we would be better to start the process with, "Help us imagine ways to keep schools open."

At the end of the day, though, the facts remain that many schools have small enrolments. When we are funded on a per pupil basis, can we afford to run schools with enrolments of 96, 110 or 150? What is the optimal number for strong educational outcomes? What are the real fiscal realities?  How many programs can we afford to offer and where should they be placed to create a workable bussing system?

The opening of 6 new schools, without any additional per pupil funding, is clearly taxing the system. Some schools have seen a drop in enrolment of 100-200 students from this time last year. Students are choosing to walk to their brand new, state-of-the-art neighbourhood school, rather than be bussed for 40 minutes. Who can blame them? I enjoyed walking my kids to school; I'm sure the parents in the north and south end communities of the city will also enjoy it. They will enjoy getting to know their neighbours and building a strong sense of community cohesion.

Despite all the confusion and ambiguity, I can see a few things clearly:
1- people are not engaging in this process in sufficient numbers, many populations are not included and many are questioning the validity of this consultation
2- people are frustrated and overwhelmed with the complexity of the issue
3- people fall back to self-interest and territorialism, in the face of the complexity and perceived threat to their school
4- the planners who have spent years working on this issue have expertise which needs to be well used
5- the community has input it wants to give on values, issues, concerns, things it wants to see in the decision-making
6- trustees ultimately need to make a decision and be prepared to show how and why they did so.

My suggestion:

That public consultation be used to clearly identify what people value, what they want to see trustees consider in their discussion and decision, what they see as reasonable trade-offs and what they need to see in order to feel confident that the process was fair, open, transparent and ultimately that wise, long-term solutions are implemented. This may include criteria for when it is appropriate to consider school closure and when it is appropriate to consider alternatives to school closure. The EFCL could help work with communities to consider and develop alternatives. The City needs to be involved in creating a way forward.

Based on this community input, the Planning Department develop a plan for each sector, drawing on their expertise and deep professional understanding of the multiple considerations. These plans should be taken out to communities for discussion (similar to the proposed LRT routes) to explain the plan, how it was devised and what the clear benefits are. As well, planners would use this opportunity to solicit feedback from the community. Planners should ask: What have we missed? What haven't we considered? What additional information do you need to feel confident in this plan?

This feedback should be taken back and considered carefully by the planners. Revisions should be incorporated.

The revised plan should be taken back to the community for explanation and to give the public time to digest this information, prior to a board vote. If there are additional tweaks to be made, they could be made following this second round of discussions.

The revised plan should be then taken to the Board for a vote.

The decision is made and we focus all our energies on supporting those affected and ensuring a smooth transition.

This would be a two year process, I'm guessing, in order to allow people to feel it was not rushed through.

Again, maybe I'm just a perpetual optimist to think that there is ANY process that will satisfy people. But more and more, I'm hearing people say: just tell us what you want to do and then we can respond to that.


Jodine said...

Thanks for this indepth and thoughtful post on the sector review process currently underway, Sue. I also agree with the EFCL - the wrong question is being asked. I do think public consultation around a different question would be a more satisfying and valuable process.

Jodine said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on the sector review workshop, Sue. I agree with the EFCL about the need to ask a different question. I think public consultation around a different question would be more meaningful and valuable.

The Real Voice of NonAcademics said...

Let me offer a couple of suggestions without trying to campaign. Both questions include the concept of schools and closure. We could have ensured that really good options had names attached to them so we can discuss ideas in more detail. The entire task- offer a viable option- is better in a grop. ask your school councils. 2,3,4 hours is a pretty short time to come up with an idea to solve a problem thouosands have been working over for months. Perhaps there is an additional question, like is there a piece of the puzzle that puzzles you, and we shoulg look further at? I can NOT thank Sue enough for her insight here. Ward C is very lucky.