My comments tonight will be limited to the public consultation process itself. I am a member of the SAC for Sir Charles Tupper School and I have attended every meeting of the Imagine Our Schools process, including the so-called SAC focus groups. This was my first experience being involved in a public consultation.
After sitting through Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s presentation on March 5, I want to clarify some points. First and foremost, it must be noted that the consultation process that we were promised by Carole Olsen on June 14, 2007 is NOT the consultation process that we ultimately ended up with. The consultation committee for the Citadel family of schools that Ms. Olsen promised was to include: 1 SAC rep from each of the 17 peninsular schools, 4 school administrators, 2 students, 2 community members, 6 HRSB advisors, and 3 external urban planning experts. In fact, this structure was included as a requirement set out in the RFP that the school board used to recruit the consultants. Despite this requirement, at the first meeting between the consultation team and the SAC reps, Ms. O’Shaughnessy advised us that the structure of the consultation process had been radically changed. The SAC reps were no longer going to be directly involved in the process, other than as a “focus group”. The school board would no longer be directly involved either. Now, given that the schools board’s staff response to the proposed plan clearly indicates they “disagree with consultants” on 10 of the specific school recommendations, I would suggest that it might have been advisable to retain the involvement of the school board and the SACs in the consultation. Had we kept the original structure, we might have ended up with a plan that satisfied all parties involved. What we have instead is a 10-year facilities master plan that doesn’t appear to make the school board happy and certainly doesn’t make the public happy. And, it cost us $240,000.
At the very first meeting between the consultants and the SAC reps, we expressed concerns about the fact that there were no educators or school administrators directly involved in the process; plus, we encouraged the consultants to send their survey questionnaire home with all students in the family of schools rather than to ask parents to come out to a meeting in the winter to complete the survey. Our suggestion was rejected outright by the consultation team. Ms. O’Shaughnessy told us that they didn’t feel that all parents were informed enough on the issues to be able to properly answer the survey questions.
Second, the survey questionnaire itself was problematic and was without question a biased or leading one. Many of the questions were confusing and many others did not provide a full range of response options. For example, a question gauging our interest in enrolling our own children in a “centre of excellence” provided no response choice to indicate no interest. Some of us who completed the survey made up and added our own response choices when none of those provided were suitable. Keeping with the same sample question about centres of excellence, only 151 of the 231 survey respondents actually chose one of the three possible answers provided. That left 80 of us who either didn’t answer the question because a suitable response wasn’t available or who made up their own answer. These other answers were not included in the tabulated survey results published by the consultants.
In addition, the definition of “schools of excellence”, for example, was only vaguely explained to us. Even worse, completion of the survey was extremely rushed and didn’t allow us enough time to properly consider the issues. This was then followed by a very rushed so-called consensus building exercise where we were asked to provide agreed-upon group responses to the very same questions. Now, it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to see that asking 10 people to come to a consensus about whether or not they would enroll their own child in a school of excellence is an impossible task.
Third, at Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s presentation to the board on March 5, she misrepresented the public’s input into the outcome of this consultation. If I had heard Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s presentation without having any prior knowledge of the process, I would likely have been wowed at the apparent thoroughness of the consultation. But I was there and I know better. At the public meetings, we discussed a variety of topics such as: shared space possibilities, the importance of walkability, the school as the centre of the community, utilization rates, and school size, among many other topics. At no time during the first two public meetings was there ever an open and honest discussion about schools closing; although, I think we all suspected that the point of this consultation was to somehow get what appeared to be a public stamp of approval for closing schools. We did not choose to close any schools.
Then at the presentation on January 29, we sat in stunned silence as they presented us with the possible Options to choose from, with the best case scenario closing six peninsular schools. These proposed options were completely disconnected from what we had been engaged in up to that point. The response among attendees was one of anger and frustration and the feedback we provided to the consultants that night led to a modification of the options, which were subsequently presented to us on Feb. 19, seeing only 4 schools close. It was at this time that the four schools to be “reviewed” were named: Cornwallis, St. Catherine’s, Joseph Howe, and St. Joseph’s A McKay. Some time between that presentation on Feb.19 and the presentation to the board on March 5, St. Catherine’s was spared and Oxford was now recommended for review instead. I don’t support the closure of either school but it begs the question: where is the transparency in the process that led to that decision?
To her credit, Ms. O’Shaughnessy did make two recommendations that should be adopted without hesitation – these are: the recommendation to adequately fund the regular maintenance of existing school facilities; and the suggestion that the DOE revise its current method of calculating school capacities.
In closing, I would like to remind the board that the DOE requested that the school board implement a full public consultation back in January 2007 in response to the backlash against a proposed south-end mega-elementary school. The logical supposition is that the purpose of the public consultation was to develop a capital plan that the public could actually live with. This consultation process has left most of us feeling used and angry, and represents a missed opportunity for true, meaningful consultation; and this proposed facilities master plan is not one the public can live with.