A critique of the Linnen report

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November 28, 2007 by realrenewal

by John Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5

HJ Linnen Associates’ Phase 2 Consultation Report on the renewal process underway in Regina Public Schools was released to the public in June 2007. An estimated 1000 people attended 57 information meetings where members of the senior administrative team laid out the options and issues. Neither Mr. Linnen nor the elected Trustees played a role in these meetings.

Following the information meetings, Mr. Linnen held 14 “feedback” meetings to gather responses and opinions regarding the options presented at the information meetings. Neither the senior administrative team nor the elected Trustees played in role in these meetings, allowing Mr. Linnen to have an unfettered dialogue with the public. About 175 people participated in these feedback meetings, providing comments and completing a survey. The school size options included elementary schools of 200 to 400, and high schools of 600 to 1200. No other school size options were included. Of the 175 attendees, 120 submitted a survey on the elementary option, while 119 did so on the high school option. Of those, 39 indicated low or very low support for the elementary option, while 60 indicated high or very high support. For the high school option, 36 indicated low or very low support for the high school option, while 65 indicated high or very high support. In both cases, 18 respondents indicated a neutral view.

A number of things are very clear. First, 120 respondents are hardly sufficient to gauge public opinion in Regina. Second, the numbers themselves indicate a fairly deep division on the question. Third, since the school size options were limited to those two, the survey did not probe the respondents’ alternative views on school size. Clearly opinion at the feedback meetings was quite divided on the school size question.

The limitations of the report undermine its usefulness as we move forward to the final phases of the renewal process. In the first instance, the school size options are rigid and limiting: elementary schools of 200 to 400; high schools of 600 to 1200. This is not the fault of HJ Linnen Associates. These school size options were developed by the senior administration and approved by the Board. I opposed them, suggesting a more flexible approach like, “elementary schools up to 400” and “high schools of up to 1000.” The effect of the rigid school size limits was to narrow and focus the discussion on school size, while from the start over half of our 47 elementary schools are near or below what will be perceived as the 200 minimum and 4 of our 10 high schools are at or near the minimum of 600. These schools have undoubtedly felt at risk since the release of the official school size options. Now they face the daunting task of trying to demonstrate why the minimum should not be imposed on their school, setting the stage for desperate competition among schools which perceive themselves “at risk.”

Another limitation of the list of options was the narrow focus on school size only, excluding other major choices available to deal with the system’s problems of declining enrolments, deteriorating infrastructure and available revenues. The other most obvious choice is to raise local taxes, since the Board has taxing powers and is elected by the community. The fact is that the Regina community can decide what kind of school system it wants, including school size, and raise the revenues necessary to achieve that goal. This option was not presented as a clear choice, though a number of participants raised it during discussions.

A further limitation was that the feedback meetings included 10 school-based public meetings and 4 meetings with “stakeholders.” Regrettably the list of stakeholders did not include the Regina Labour Council (though the Chamber of Commerce was included), nor did it include the many community associations throughout the city.

Finally, the report notes that the Board must “correct a number of often-repeated beliefs…that are not soundly based in fact.” Mr. Linnen includes two allegedly erroneous beliefs with which I take issue: “The Board has not invested in building maintenance” and “Closing a school closes a neighbourhood.” I am sure Mr. Linnen is using these as exaggerated straw men to be easily knocked down, because no one I know would say such things seriously. They might of course be said in a moment of passionate argument to make a point. In fact, both comments make very good points indeed.

While it is patently absurd to say the Board has invested nothing in maintenance of infrastructure, it is very true to say that the Board has so under-invested in building maintenance for many years that the responsibility for the system’s physical deterioration lays very significantly with the Board’s budget decisions. I have unsuccessfully raised this issue during budget discussion for many years. The fact is the Board made budget decisions in response to provincial cuts and under funding, and to a fear of raising local taxes sufficiently, that led to the decline in the physical infrastructure. Only very recently has the Board adopted the public sector standard of investing 2 per cent of the current replacement value (CRV) each year in renovation and maintenance of the physical plant. That standard should have been adopted 10 years or more ago. And despite adopting the 2 per cent CRV standard as a goal, the budget the Board just approved only reaches a CVR of 1 per cent. And so the physical deterioration will continue.

Again while it is patently absurd to say that if you close a school you close a neighbourhood, nevertheless the evidence is clear that a school closure is a major traumatic event for a neighbourhood or a community. In some cases, for example an extremely vulnerable neighbourhood, a school closure can contribute to that area falling into complete dysfunction as a viable area to raise children safely.

I look forward to the coming public debates. As the Board plan is released and the discussions heat up, especially for those schools at risk of closure, I remain, as I have in my years on the Board, committed to retaining the small neighbourhood school as the foundation of the Regina Public School system. And I wonder why, just as New York City, after decades of experience with very large high schools, is moving to smaller high schools with an ideal enrolment goal of 500, the majority of the Board and the senior administration of Regina Public Schools has set an enrolment standard of 600 to 1200 for Regina’s high schools.

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