School closure processes, thinly disguised as School Reviews or School Accommodation Reviews, are definitely in bad odour. In Canadian school districts as diverse as Downtown Kingston, the inner core of Regina, and the villages and towns of rural Nova Scotia, local parents and taxpayers erupt during “March School Closure Madness” in fierce opposition to regional school boards pursuing school consolidation and looking to cut operations costs by closing ‘disposable’ school properties.
A recent research paper, released in July 2012 and written by two Ontario professors confirmed what small school advocates everywhere learn through bitter personal experience – that community members and municipalities have no real say in closure decisions. Bill Irwin of the University of Western Ontario and Mark Seasons of University of Waterloo identified significant shortcomings in school board accommodation review processes. Although the Ontario process, established in 2005, purport to be “consultative,” they were found to be “not fully participatory and were “rarely collaborative in nature” and leaving school boards “solely responsible for final decisions.””
The School Review Process, according to Irwin, “created an adversarial atmosphere” and “pitted community against community and neighborhood against neighborhood, where there will be winners and a loser.” Halting the process, they contend, would recognize that schools are “key to building a community’s social capital ” and seek instead “alternative decision-making models” drawn from community planning and development.
After a full cycle of “School Closure Madness,’ Nova Scotia’s Education Minister Ramona Jennex reached the same conclusion. Over the vocal objections of a few school boards, she announced on April 3, 2013 a province-waide moratorium on School Reviews pending the development of a fairer, more community-based process. What comes next in Nova Scotia is now the critical public policy question.
Holding “public hearings” on hard proposals to close schools is not conducive to healthy public consultation and is usually the kiss of death to parental engagement. It’s time for a completely new approach, supplanting school consolidation planning exercises with an open, transparent and inclusive process that fosters community-building and gives proper weight to a new set of priorities – the quality of education, student engagement, the health and safety of children, and a better tone in school-community relations.
The model of Public Engagement, developed by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum (PPF), might well serve as that vehicle to generate better, community-based solutions, rendering quasi-judicial school accommodation reviews essentially obsolete. Future planning for schooling would then be focused on rural and urban revitalization instead of on lopping-off small schools and abandoning school communities. The PPF Public Engagement model, favoured by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, starts by taking a broader lens and breaking out of the old mould that previously constrained public policy making within the educational system.
The PPF model passes the public sniff test. First, are we asking the right question – and are we allowing participants to re-frame the fundamental question? And secondly, what are the participants prepared to do, working in partnership with government authorities, to demonstrate ownership of the community-based solutions?
Readily available options like the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board’s Successful Schools for Successful Students planning process, implemented from September 2008 until 2012, will be found significantly wanting.While it provides a longer period of initial consultation, the AVRSB model still adheres to the “hidden agenda” of the school facilities planners, including the plan to advance “grade re-configuration” (P to 8, 9 to 12), moving kids from smaller to bigger schools. Buried in the rather woolly rationale was a telling line that the whole scheme was explicitly designed to “ rationalize the way the educational program would be delivered into the future. “
Significant changes are afoot in many Canadian public bodies, private businesses, and community organizations seeking to build public support for major initiatives by involving the public in more meaningful ways in the making of a wider range of decisions.
The Halifax Public Libraries, for example, has taken the lead in demonstrating a much better approach to promoting genuine public engagement. The 2011-12 public engagement sessions on the Central Library, run by Tim Merry, co-founder of the Art of Hosting movement, utilized the ‘World Cafe’ discussion group format, fully evolved with live streaming, targeted focus groups, public surveys, and a ‘Mind Map’ graffiti wall. That same model was adopted in the second round of public meetings over the controversial Nova Convention Centre, and now by other consultation-wise groups in Pictou County, Alberta, and Washington, DC.
Conducting public hearings, as well as school board meetings, in very traditional ‘Teacher Knows Best’ mode is alienating parents and taxpayers. Yet, there is little evidence, so far, of a willingness, at the board level, to make the necessary changes.
True public engagement cannot, and will not, result from such to-down approaches, especially with today’s skeptical public. Past experiences, information overload, social uncertainty, and the nature of technology are all changing the way responsible public bodies interact with their constituencies. Tim Merry calls it “a paradigm shift from command and control to participatory leadership.” Dominance by school facilities planners is coming to an end, and we need a process to generate community-based solutions “none of us could create alone.”
Whether it’s the City of Kingston, the historic Connaught School of Regina, or Nova Scotia’s rural schools, the adversarial School Review Process needs to be permanently put on ice and supplanted with a fairer, more community-based process designed to generate more viable long-term solutions.
With the School Review Process under fire and on the rocks, what comes next? How can education authorities restore public trust and still manage to effectively plan for the future? What would work better for schools and communities in the best interests of our children?