For the past three months, parents of students attending Park West School in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park have been in a state of upheaval. Concerned parents now find themselves essentially ensnared in a Boundary Review Process, managed by the Chief Superintendent, excluding the elected board, and providing political cover for “rezoning students” and implementing pre-determined school grade reconfiguration plans.
Boundary Reviews are often contentious because they are a concrete demonstration of the coercive power of the education state. Under provincial Education Acts, school boards are entrusted with establishing school attendance zones (catchment areas) and “assigning students to various schools” in the district. Some boards spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on enforcing attendance zones and on balancing “the catchment population with the capacity of the school.”
Major metropolitan boards in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto have learned to become more flexible, establishing free attendance zones and broadening the range of school choice for parents. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is more representative of the majority of school boards which invest much of their administrative time in re-engineering school communities to occupy vacant school spaces.
Most recently, the HRSB initiated an extensive 12 school boundary review process targeting two schools, Park West and Grosvenor Wentworth Park, deemed by the Superintendent and school officials to have more than the optimum number of students. When the board’s real agenda, moving Park West’s Grades 7 to 9 students elsewhere, was eventually revealed, hundreds of Park West parents led by local Kumon Math manager Janet Lee, rose up in protest.
A clear majority of the Park West Parents are opposed to the enforced school reconfiguration and the shipping of their senior grades to a school some 45 minutes walk away. While the school with 783 students is over capacity, it was never an issue until the board decided to “fix” the non-existent problem. School enrollment projections going forward, unearthed by the parents, show an actual decline of numbers and do not support the board’s preferred scenario.
The Boundary Review has proven just as divisive as a school closure process. A Save Park West School P-9 petition was posted on Change.org and generated a strong response from aggrieved parents and community members. Former HRSB board member, Dr. David Cameron, spoke out against the disruptive intervention in a healthy, harmonious and diverse school community. On April 13, 2013, Save Park West advocate Janet Lee issued a circular letter to 26 public officials and reporters lambasting the process.
Save Park West parents have expanded their critique to include the entire HRSB Boundary Review process. The 12-school Boundary Review Committee, appointed by the Superintendent, is, by all accounts, a totally staff-driven exercise, pitting parents from 10 schools against the two reps whose schools face reconfiguration or eventual closure. They have also discovered that this arbitrary, autocratic process has already claimed two earlier school victims, Cavalier Drive (P-9) and Bedford South (P-9), in the 2011-12 cycle of reviews.
A close-up look at HRSB Policy B.003- Creating School Populations (2013), demonstrates that it’s the Superintendent’s preferred process with decision-making criteria right out of a facilities planning manual. Nowhere is the Process really spelled out; instead the policy assigns total control to the Superintendent, who makes the recommendation to the board. Even the recently abandoned Nova Scotia School Review process provided more rights to parents and community representatives.
Serious concerns being raised about the fairness and legitimacy of the Boundary Review process are simply dismissed by the sitting HRSB Board Chair as “board bashing.” The reality is quite different when you carefully consider the 11 different community complaints registered by Park West School parents, documenting a total lack of transparency, due process, and public legitimacy. The whole process is being tested and, like the provincial SChool Review Process, is slowly being exposed and discredited.
School Boundary Reviews are by their very nature often disputed and potentially divisive. The Halifax Board model, however, is particularly so because it is so draconian and undemocratic compared to that of many other school boards. Back in 2011, former Lower Sackville trustee Donna Hubbard actually divulged that, in proposing grade configuration changes, she was only acting at the behest of the Superintendent and staff. More recently, Board member Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison publicly disclosed that she had been warned to stay out of the Park West dispute or she was liable to “lose her vote at the Board table.”
The Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy, No. I-29, School Boundary Review Process (2003) is far superior in terms of democratic principles and governance practices. The Board, rather than the Superintendent, oversees the whole process and elected Board members (trustees) are “invited to attend committee and community consultation session meetings as observers.” While such processes are not perfect, they are light years ahead of the HRSB School Boundary Review policy in terms of their respect for the rights of parents to full, fair and unfettered participation in any matter directly impacting upon the future of their school.
Why are School Boundary Reviews so potentially divisive and damaging to school communities? What’s the real purpose of “zoning students” and “reconfiguring schools”? Are there situations when school boundary realignments might make good sense? Is it time for large urban boards to consider free attendance zones and authorizing more cross-boundary students?