Text of remarks opposing program consolidations and school closures

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March 11, 2008 by realrenewal

Regina Public Schools, 11 March 2008
Dr. J. F. Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5

Mr Chairperson, fellow Trustees, members of the administrative, professional and teaching staff, students and parents, and supporters of Regina’s public schools. First, let me begin by requesting that all decisions on tonight’s proposed program consolidations and school closures be made by recorded vote.

I wish to express my strong opposition to tonight’s proposed closures and consolidations, and the vision and strategy that lies behind them as laid out in the 10-year renewal plan previously approved by a majority of this Board. The Regina public school system we will have at the end of this plan in 2018 is, for me, unacceptable and represents a tragically missed opportunity to be so much better.

That said, I must say bluntly that tonight therefore is but the first skirmish in what will be a 10-year battle. I must confess I am fearful and deeply saddened that some, indeed perhaps all, of these program consolidations and school closures will be approved by a majority of Board members tonight. Let me then make one final appeal to my colleagues on the Board to vote against these proposals and to return to the drawing board as we design a new and better future for the Regina public school system.

I was first elected to the Board in 1991. In that election, and in each subsequent election, I campaigned on a platform that included defending and retaining our small, neighbourhood elementary schools as the foundation of the system. In the last 17 years I have resisted school closures each time they were proposed, a resistance that I regret to say had only very marginal success in stopping what some wanted to be a closure juggernaut. And in the past it was always clear that the closures were fiscally driven – they were designed to cut costs and increase so-called efficiencies in the delivery of educational programming to the children.

This time we are told that the proposed closures and consolidations are not primarily fiscally driven. That is, quite simply in my view, not true.

In my years on the Board we have been repeatedly subjected to pressure from the provincial government, through senior officials in the department, now ministry, of education to divest ourselves of “excess capacity,” “to reduce our square footage per student,” “to rationalize our physical plant,” and so on. The pressure was blatant and the message was always clear – how can you expect the government to take your budgetary requests seriously as long as you continue to retain and fund excess physical capacity? The closure of small schools and the consolidation of pupils in bigger schools was both more cost efficient and more educationally effective, we were told repeatedly.

This message was conveyed particularly aggressively to former director Bob Brown, leading to the closure fiasco in 2005. And during my time as Chair, 1997 to 2000, when it was made clear there would be no involuntary school closures while I served as Chair, then director Loretta Elford reported in detail to me on the continuing pressure from the government for us to close schools.

It appears that the then government, and this Board, continue to adhere to the now outdated and old notion that bigger is better and less costly, and that smaller is bad and expensive.

So don’t kid yourself, it is about the money, about how much we as a community are willing to invest in our children.
The fact that this plan is fiscally driven was made abundantly clear by the framing of the three key issues which had to be addressed in renewing the system. As you will recall, these were: 1) declining enrolments; 2) deteriorating infrastructure; and 3) available revenue.

Declining enrolments will lead to a fall in grants from the provincial government, and a further increase in our so-called “excess capacity.” There was no discussion of the opportunity presented by this demographic trend, which is universal in advanced industrial social structures – what I have called “the demographic dividend.” Here is an opportunity to move to smaller classes. But no, that was not, and is not, on the table in the renewal plan.

A deteriorating infrastructure, involving millions in postponed maintenance, is costly. It is cheaper to close and sell or knock down schools that have been allowed to physically deteriorate. But there was no discussion of the fact that this “deteriorating infrastructure” resulted from deliberate budgetary and taxation decisions made by this and previous Boards, decisions that led to irresponsible neglect of this huge public investment in public schools. If any Board of a private industry, or of a Crown corporation, had been so blatantly neglectful of the investment in physical plant, they would have been impeached by the shareholders or replaced by the government. But it is okay to under fund the public infrastructure to the point of collapse, and then use of that deliberate deterioration as the rationale for further cuts in public investment and public services – in this case, educational services for our children. This is all about money, and how much we are willing to invest in the physical structure of public education.

On the available revenue issue, we know that provincial governments have notoriously under funded public education for years, but during the renewal consultation it was simply asserted that there is no appetite for local property tax increases to fund education. Hence, the only real option we have as a community – since there is still local democratic control of education and school boards still have powers of taxation – was taken away from the public during the consultation process.

I have always disagreed with the assertion that the public is unwilling to pay more taxes for public education. This is what the conservative business lobby – the Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business – loudly and endlessly repeats. But the members of the public I talk to are, by and large, willing to pay more taxes for excellence in public education, are willing to invest more in our children. This fact is confirmed in poll after poll, and the trend over the past 20 years has been an increase in the majority percentage of the population willing to pay more taxes for public education. Yet the big lie that the public will vigorously resist paying higher taxes to fund education found its way into the renewal consultation process as a founding premise not open to challenge or debate.

Yes, it is all about money, and all about how much the supporters of public education are willing to pay for excellence in education.

We were also repeatedly told that this plan is not primarily about school closures. I have never believed that for a moment – and here we are tonight debating the closure of 3 successful and effective schools with 11 more to go over the life of this plan.

It became clear this is a school closure plan when, in March 2007, the Administration recommended and a majority of the Board approved the “Program Delivery Models” of 200 to 400 for elementary schools, and 600 to 1200 for high schools. As soon as these numbers were approved, particularly the bottom limit which was to become defining and rigid in determining which schools and which programs were vulnerable to closure, the school closure train left the station and began to pick up speed. In a 13 March 2007 memorandum I pointed out to my colleagues on the Board that 19 of our elementary schools and 4 of our high schools fell below this figure, and were therefore candidates for closure. The plan that emerged recommended closing 12 elementary schools and 2 high schools.

This is a school closure plan above all else, and its intention is to fundamentally reconfigure the Regina public school system. And this reconfiguration is being done in contradiction to the growing body of best practice evidence documenting the superiority of small schools on virtually every measure of effectiveness: from positive academic outcomes to higher levels of parent and community involvement and support, to higher participation rates of students in extracurricular activities, to, yes, even to cost efficiency. Smaller is not only better but cheaper when successful outcome rates are included in measurements of cost effectiveness. You can read a summary of this evidence in the body of the Leithwood report reviewing the research on the effects of school size on various outcomes.

The flaw in the Leithwood report is that it fails to include a survey of the research on the optimum size of schools for maximizing the well-documented positive effects of small school size. This body of research is just beginning to emerge as the small schools movement continues to succeed in convincing more and more school divisions to opt for small schools. From the research I have read, the optimum high school size is typically 500 or less, with no bottom cut off, some studies say 200. Usher easily fits this optimum size range for high schools to enjoy the maximum small school benefits. For elementary schools, the figure varies, some say less than 400 with no lower limit, others say a maximum of 250 to 300, with no lower limit, and others say simply less than 350 with no lower limit. Herchmer and Stewart Russell easily fit into this size range.

What all these figures have in common is they provide an evidentiary challenge to the rigid program delivery guidelines adopted by this Board, particularly the imposition of a rigid lower limit of 200 for elementary schools and 600 for high schools. Most reports on optimum school size simply mention a maximum size beyond which the small school benefits are jeopardized.

When one combines the insights provided by the findings of the general research on small schools with the evidence from the research on the optimum size for small schools, some clear conclusions emerge. It is clear that “smaller is better” when a variety of impacts and outcomes are examined, including, most importantly, given the core mission of schools, academic achievement. But the evidence allows us to go even further and conclude that “the smaller the school, the better the outcomes.” And the evidence allows us to add the following final general conclusion that has implications for Usher, Herchmer and Stewart Russell: for greatest success among socio-economically disadvantaged students, small schools, often schools considered very small by existing standards, are not only best, but are perhaps absolutely essential.

In my years on the Board I have always been guided in my decisions by the answers to two fundamental questions.

First, what is in the best interests of the children? Not theoretical children 5, 10 or 20 years into the future.
But the children in the system, in the schools, now, today.

Second, what is in the public interest as we work to serve and improve excellence in publicly funded education?

Tonight I can say without hesitation that this plan, and these closures and consolidations we are deciding tonight, are not in the interests of the children in the system today. Nor are they in the public interest.

Yesterday John Hopkins, the CEO of the Regina Chamber of Commerce declared support for this plan and for the Board making “the tough decisions that are needed to ensure the health and vitality of the entire school system.”

He is dead wrong, and we know he speaks on behalf of the main business interest group in the city which has carried out a relentless pressure campaign on this Board to hold the line on taxes, or preferably to cut taxes. And it is precisely this serious shortage of public revenues to fund the system that has brought us to this plan and this closure debate tonight.

Any reasonable person who listened carefully to the presentations by the school communities, who took seriously the concerns expressed about bussing almost half of our elementary students by the end of this plan, who looked carefully at the doubts raised by the challenging alternative figures regarding the financial projections and the predicted future enrolments of the schools, can only conclude that this plan and these closures will not contribute to the “health and vitality” of the public school system.

And why are we always advised, especially by the “no tax” or “tax cut” business lobby groups, to be tough on our children, our parents, our communities by taking their schools away from them?

I believe in a different kind of tough decisions. The decision to stand up against the business lobby and the provincial government, demanding a greater investment in our children.

The decision to stand with the school communities to fight for a better public school system against those who would allow it to atrophy and wither on the vine – under funded, physically deteriorating, slipping lower and lower on the priority list for public expenditure.

My friends, the future of Regina public schools is a bleak one as long as this school closure plan remains in place. Over the next 10 years we will be fighting repeated rear guard actions to save 11 other schools from closure. We have no choice but to do this, if only because some of the schools may be saved thanks to our efforts.

But the big issue is the plan – it is the proverbial elephant in the room. It was approved by a majority of the Board and it is therefore Board policy.

I believe that plan must be withdrawn and modified, substituting a 10 year plan committed to a small schools and small class size strategy instead of a school closure and program consolidation strategy. The program delivery guidelines, which are also Board policy, must be revised, removing the rigid imposition of a minimum number of 200 for elementary schools and 600 for high schools.

We will continue to sign petitions, to engage in cap-in-hand pleadings before the Board at every opportunity, and to nurture and grow opposition to the plan in the city.

But the real opportunity to change the plan and the guidelines is the October 2009 election – the election of a new Board with a majority of Trustees prepared to change this plan and those guidelines and set Regina Public Schools on a new and far better course.

With that in mind I will make a pledge tonight. If I am re-elected in 2009, and if I am joined at the Board table by at least 3 other Trustees of like mind on this plan, I promise to make two motions at the earliest opportunity.

First, I will move a motion to re-open any of the schools that are closed tonight for the 2010-11 school year. This will, of course, be contingent on whether the present Board rushes to sell off or knock down any of the schools that might be closed tonight. And I say this with some trepidation, since there is a widely circulating rumour that discussions have already begun with a firm to knock down Herchmer school in July if the closure motion passes tonight.

Second, I will move a motion to withdraw the plan, directing the Administration to re-draft it by removing the proposed closures at its heart and substituting a 10 year renewal plan based on retaining and nurturing small schools and reducing class size.

Only a new Board with a new vision can turn things around.

School/Program Specific Comments:
by Dr. J. F. Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5
11 March 2008

Wascana
I oppose this proposed consolidation of the K to 4 French Immersion program at Wascana school to Elsie Mironuk on the grounds that the consolidation of dual track French Immersion programs is being carried out overly hastily without due consideration of the long term impacts on the overall French immersion program.

Further, the 10 year plan is an organic whole, almost like a series of dominos, and this decision is clearly tied to the anticipated closure of Herchmer school now, as well as future possible closures in the North Central area.

For these reasons, I will not support this motion.

Wilfrid Walker
I am unconvinced of the wisdom of ending the English program at Wilfrid Walker and turning the school into a French centre. Although I am not in principle opposed to creating a French centre school at some point, I do not support creating one at the expense of an existing dual track program.

I believe we must strive to retain, and make every effort to enhance, our dual track approach to French immersion. We also must ensure that opportunities for such a program are fairly and reasonably dispersed throughout the city.
I might favour a French centre as a future pilot project, but not at the expense of closing one of our existing dual track programs.

I will therefore oppose this motion.

Herchmer
I do not support closing this school. All the evidence is that this is a successful and effective school dealing with enormous economic, social and psychological difficulties among the population it serves. Further, given the fact that it serves a large number of aboriginal students in an area with a very large aboriginal population, this school could become a model for our aboriginal education strategy.

The school is also a safe and secure place in an area of the city plagued by many problems and risks for children. Many parents expressed concerns about the safety of their children going to a more distant school if Herchmer is closed.

It is also important to note that Regina’s aboriginal population has grown rapidly in recent years, and this area and this school will continue to grow in numbers into the future.

North Central is the most socio-economically disadvantaged area in the city – according to the 2001 Census, with almost half its population below the poverty line (47 %), with 38 per cent of its families single parent, and an average annual income of just over $30,000. Research tells us most emphatically that small schools, often very small schools, are most effective in educating seriously disadvantaged children.
Finally, I must add, that the closure of Herchmer will lead to a haemorrhage of students from the public to the Catholic system.

Stewart Russell
I oppose closing Stewart Russell school because it is a proven successful and effective small school. Again, this school, though more socio-economically mixed than Herchmer, tends to serve a significant number of aboriginal students. Further, the school serves a significantly disadvantaged area of the city. According to the 2001 Census, the Glencairn area has a 14 per cent poverty rate and a 19 per cent single parent family rate, while the Glen Elm area has a 21 per cent poverty rate and a 24 per cent single parent family rate. The evidence is clear that small, neighbourhood schools are best for children who tend to be more disadvantaged than the average.

Further, given the growth in aboriginal population in Regina, and given the fact that some of the area around Stewart Russell appears to attract aboriginal families due to more affordable housing, and given the significant number of aboriginal students at Stewart Russell, this school could also be a focus of our effort to enhance and improve educational outcomes among our aboriginal children.

Usher
All the evidence is that this is an extremely successful and effective small high school, and the further evidence presented regarding the growth in population as a result of the development of Kensington Greens, makes the case even more compelling for keeping this school open. It is truly a jewel in Regina Public Schools high school crown. It boggles the mind that the Board would contemplate the closure of such an effective and successful high school.

Furthermore, the area served by Usher, though mixed, includes a lot of social diversity including a mixture of the upper-middle, middle and working classes and, in some areas, a high poverty rate. For example, according to the 2001 Census, the Uplands area has an average annual income over $65,000, a poverty rate of only 6.4 per cent, and only a slightly elevated single parent family rate of 16 per cent. Yet the Northeast area has an average annual income of $38,000, a poverty rate of 24 per cent, and a single parent family rate of 29 per cent. In other words, this is a high school which has proven its success in serving a very socio-economically diverse population very successfully and very inclusively.

Contrast that with Campbell, which I do only because the Campbell School Community Council inserted itself into this debate and supported the closure of Usher. Take Whitmore Park, for example, with an average annual income of over $71,000, a poverty rate of only 5.5 per cent, and a single parent family rate of 12 per cent, about the norm in Canada. Campbell serves a very socio-economically advantaged and very homogeneous student population. Such a demographic is reasonably well served by a larger school (though I believe Campbell is too large, but we are stuck with it, another reminder of our outdated bigger is better legacy). But the evidence tells us clearly that a very socio-economically diverse student population like that at Usher is best served by a small high school.

In my view, closing Usher would be an indefensible decision, given all of the evidence we have before us.

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