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Archive for the ‘School Closures’ Category

School district consolidation is a striking phenomenon not only in Atlantic Canada, but right across Canada and the United States. Two levels of consolidation, encompassing the merging of smaller schools and the collapsing of school districts, leads to the centralization of management. It also rests primarily on two presumed benefits: (1) fiscal efficiency and (2) higher educational quality.

With the recent release of Dr. Avis Glaze’s education restructuring report, Raise the Bar, a fierce public debate is underway in Nova Scotia focusing on her plan to dissolve the seven remaining English school boards, reassign administrators to the schools, and reinvest any savings in the classroom. Following that report, a CBC News Nova Scotia investigation revealed that the 38 school board administrators potentially affected earned $4.7 million a year. Whether her plan retaining the seven districts will yield much in the way of cost savings is very much in question.  The research, so far, is decidedly mixed when all factors are taken into consideration.

The sheer scale of district consolidation is staggering. Driven largely by the pursuit of financial economy and efficiency, district consolidation swept across the United States, reduced the number of K-12 districts from 117,108 in 1939-1940 to 13,862 by 2006-2007, a decline of 88 per cent. The rate of consolidation has slowed over the past decade, but at least a few districts consolidate every year in many states (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). While comparative Canadian data is not readily available, it is relatively safe to observe the existence of a similar pattern (Bennett 2011, Corbett 2014).

School district consolidation in Canada is driven by provincial education authorities looking for cost reductions, but in some cases, the trigger factor is eliminating local education authorities obstructing education initiatives. Provincial announcements authorizing educational restructuring, such as the 1996 Ontario School Reduction Task Force, justify the school district consolidation as a cost reduction measure and commit to redirecting any savings into the classroom (Ontario 1996). Declining student enrolments, demographic trends, out-migration, and duplicated functions are among the common factors cited in making the case for consolidation (Galway, Sheppard, Wiens and Brown 2013).

In some cases, such as Prince Edward Island, the prime justification is clarity of direction rather than any economic benefits. In October 2011, for example, the P.E.I. Education Governance Commission recognized that the evidence of “operational efficiencies and net savings” is mixed, based upon previous ventures in Prince Edward Island and elsewhere. “There is a risk,” the Commission report recognized, “that any savings that may result from elimination of duplication in some areas could be offset. Initially by transition costs, and in the longer term by rising expenditures in other areas such as increased specialization and more hierarchy.”   (PEI Governance 2011).

Most American state governments are more explicit about the incentives uses to nudge along the process of school district consolidation. The most common form of U.S. state policy is transition funding designed to encourage district reorganization, typically in the form of consolidation, by providing additional money for operations or capital projects during the transition to the new form of organization. The aid bonus from consolidation can be quite large. In the State of New York, consolidating districts may receive an increase in their basic operating aid of up to 40 percent for five years, with declining increases for an additional nine years.

On top of this aid, consolidating districts also may receive a 30 percent increase in building aid for projects initiated within 10 years of consolidation.  Possibly as many as one-third of all American states, including some with consolidation bonuses, still maintain countervailing policies that provide support to school districts for “sparsity” (or low population density) or for small scale operations, factors that work against consolidation (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Forecasted Savings

The prime justification for school district consolidation has long been that it is a way to cut costs. These cost savings arise, the argument goes, because the provision of education is characterized by economies of size, which exist whenever the cost of education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up. In this context, the cost of education is not the same as education spending but is instead the amount a school district would have to spend to obtain a given level of performance, as measured by test scores, graduation rates and perhaps other output measures. To put it another way, economies of size exist if spending on education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up, controlling for school district performance. Because consolidation creates larger school districts, it results in lower costs per pupil whenever economies of size exist (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Economies of size could arise for many reasons:

Indivisibilities: First, the school services provided to each student by certain education professionals may not diminish in quality as the number of students increases, at least over some range. All districts require a superintendent and the same central administration may be able to serve a significant range of enrollment with little change in total costs.

Increased Dimension: Second, education requires certain physical capital, such as a heating system and science laboratories, which require a certain scale to operate efficiently and therefore have a high cost per pupil in small districts.

Specialization: Third, larger districts may be able to employ more specialized teachers, putting them in a better position to provide the wide range of courses required by public accountability systems and expected today by students and parents.

Innovation and Learning: Finally, teachers in larger districts have more colleagues on which to draw for advice and discussion, interactions that presumably lead to improved effectiveness (Duncombe and Yinger 2007, 2010).

Potential Mitigating Factors
Popular assumptions about economies of size have been challenged by researchers focusing on the relationship between school and school district size and student performance and well-being. Rural education studies have demonstrated that the sizes of the school district and the high school are highly correlated and, in many cases, cost savings are rarely realized and larger schools can have detrimental impact upon student performance and engagement (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011). Effective schools research also tends to show that small to moderate-sized schools are more successful than mega-schools at retaining students through to high school graduation (Howley 2002). Leading American experts on school district consolidation William Duncombe and John Yinger have found that extremely large districts (those enrolling 15,000 or more students—are likely to be fiscally inefficient because consolidation has proceeded beyond the point of a favourable cost-benefit ratio (Duncombe and Yinger 2005, 2010).

Four sources of potential diseconomies of size are:

Higher Transportation Costs: First, consolidated school districts usually make use of larger schools, which implies that average transportation distance must increase. As a result, consolidation might increase a district’s transportation spending per pupil.

Levelling Up of HR Costs: Second, consolidating districts may level up salaries and benefits to those of the most generous participating district, thereby raising personnel costs.

Lowering of Staff Morale: Third, administrators and teachers tend to have a more positive attitude toward work in smaller schools, which tend to have more flexible rules and procedures.

Less Student and Parent Participation: Finally, students can be more motivated and parents more comfortable to interact with teachers in smaller districts, which tend to have a greater community feel. These reactions and closer student-faculty relationships may result in higher student performance at any given spending level. Longer school bus rides have a detrimental impact upon student engagement and achievement.

Overall, the net impact of consolidation on education costs per pupil is not always clear. Consolidation of tiny school districts of 1,500 students or less is likely to tap into economies of size and thereby lower these costs, but, beyond those numbers, consolidation might actually cause costs per pupil to rise (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). The most recent research literature review, published in 2011 by the U.S. National Education Policy Center, concluded that “claims for educational benefits from systematic state-wide school and district consolidation are vastly overestimated and, beyond school districts of 1,500, have actually been maximized years ago” (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011).

What happens to the projected savings forecasted in school district consolidation plans?  How does the education finance process work to obscure and conceal the data required to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis? What mitigating factors arise to compromise or nullify the forecasted savings?  Is it possible to assess the full extent of losses, financial and social, at the school level? What are the real lessons for those tempted to tackle education restructuring? 

Research conducted for this post is part of a larger project on Restructuring Education (Halifax: Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, 2018).

 

 

 

 

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The Director of Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Dr. John Malloy, is, once again, on the hot seat for attempting to limit school choice in public education.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy was quick to distance himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Whether it revealed his ‘hidden agenda’ is another matter altogether.

TDSBMalloyActionWhile Director Malloy ‘walked back’ from that particular TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force recommendation, it was abundantly clear that TDSB under Malloy is prepared to stand firm on implementing its own version of “enhancing equity” for all students. That’s also perfectly consistent with Malloy’s stance while serving as Director of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board from 2009 to 2014. As a chief superintendent, he’s well known for putting in motion “educational equity” projects that seek to limit school choice in public education and threaten the existence of specialized program schools.

Malloy is heavily invested in the TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and its core mission.  In his introductory video, explaining the TDSB initiative, he professes to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expresses concern that it is not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert goes further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Specialized programs and streaming of Grade 9 students stand in the way of that “commitment” and are the real targets of the TDSB Task Force.  “Our commitment stands,” Malloy declares in the video. “We want schools to be inclusive, engaging environments for each and every student. That means things must change. We also know that change is hard. It impacts us. We need to work together to make it happen.”

Malloy’s metal was tested in Hamilton and he barely survived the battle.  Pushing hard for school closures in 2013-14, he ran smack up against a public uprising when he went to war with a popular high school principal Paul Beattie and forced through the closure of Parkview School, Hamilton’s highly-acclaimed high school for special needs students.

After placating parents and students by promising to transfer Beattie with them to Mountain S.S., he reneged on that commitment and aroused a storm of student protest in September of 2014. Shortly after the October 2014 trustee election, Malloy was seconded to the Ministry of Education and left town. While Malloy was considering his options, former principal Beattie, now retired, surfaced as a senior advisor to a Citizen Forum organized to serve as a watchdog on the HWDSB.

Malloy’s TDSB initiative sprung out of TDSB research  over the past decade on the uneven academic performance of racial groups and a 2017 OISE study of the board’s specialized arts programs.  Conducted by OISE professor Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, the study found that three of the four TDSB arts program schools were populated primarily with students who were white and drawn disproportionately from the city’s more affluent districts. It also criticized the schools for offering a curriculum reflecting “a traditional Eurocentric view of the arts,” including orchestral music, ballet, studio painting, and sculpture.

The author of the OISE report, used to justify the TDSB Task Force’s mandate, was openly hostile to the arts-focused schools. “These are public schools, ” he told CBC News. ” The public is paying for these schools.” Based upon his survey findings, he added, they were “kind of like private schools within a public system.”  It’s statements like this that tend to breed suspicion about what’s really driving the TDSB agenda.

Students and parents at Toronto’s special program schools are fighting back, including many from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds.  “It really comes as a shock,” said Frank Hong, a student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. He’s in the TOPS program, which specializes in math, sciences, and language arts. “[These programs are] an essential part of the school community,” he told CBC News, ” and to take them away from communities and from potential future students is horrible.”  Threatening to cancel the programs caused “a lot of outrage” on social media, said Niam Pattni, a student in the MaCS program at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute.

The adverse public reaction, capped by a Toronto newspaper column by The Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee, prompted Malloy and his Task Force to pull back on outright advocacy and to explain that these were just “draft recommendations.” Most of the public response tended to echo Gee’s Don’t Kill Specialty Schools” plea and to point out that there were far better ways to close the achievement gap and to promote equality in the school system.

Few who are familiar with Toronto’s alternative and specialty schools, including those for special needs students, would swallow the argument that they are simply “citadels of white privilege.” The TDSB, for all its shortcomings, is still a leader in providing a tremendous array of school options for students and parents, demonstrating every day that there are a multitude of different ways to reach and engage students.

Tampering with what works in education is not the best way forward. Reading the fine print in the TDSB Task Force report, it all comes to a vote when the TDSB Board of Trustees meet on December 13, 2017.  We’ll all be watching.

What’s the real objective of Dr. John Malloy’s TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force? Who wins when school systems eliminate lighthouse programs and limit choice for students and parents?  Since when are “specialty schools” a high priority problem? Does a school system become stronger by lopping-off or trimming its centres of excellence? Who would really benefit if the Toronto DSB cut its special programs and ‘lowered all boats in the water’? 

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The annual February and March ‘School Closure Madness’ is upon us generating considerable heat amid the winter deep freeze.  School closures are dominating the local educational world in many rural and inner city school communities beset by declining student enrollments.  Whether it’s rural southern and central Ontario, the suburban GTA Region, or the villages of Prince Edward Island, parents, families and community members are fully engaged in popular movements resisting further centralization and consolidation or standing up for threatened towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

ontarioschoolclosuresrallyoct16A group representing concerned citizens from across Ontario, the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures (OAASC), is  now calling on the Ministry of Education to immediately halt school closures and scrap the current wave of school consolidation. .In its October 2016 open letter to Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, the OAASC claimed that a recently revised PARG (Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline) is flawed and must be rewritten and proposed that 1) ARC reviews be immediately suspended until a democratic guideline is in place; 2) the Government of Ontario immediately put a moratorium on school closures; and 3) the Government commission a study to determine the effects of extensive school closures on the health of affected children and their communities.

One of OAASC’s leaders, Susan MacKenzie, expressed alarm at the scope of the latest school consolidation wave threatening to shutter some 600 schools, 1 in every eight schools across Ontario, seeking to save up to $1-billion spent to maintain reportedly ‘half-full’ school buildings. Back in March 2016, with the rewriting of the PARG,  MacKenzie claimed “communities lost a significant voice at the table giving school boards the freedom to ram these closures through without resistance.” “Community schools are under siege, carried by this tidal wave of closures across the province,” she added.” The revised guideline has pitted the province and school boards against our communities.”

Five schools on Prince Edward Island are now under review for closure. Since the adoption of the revised P.E.I. School Change policy in September 2016, school boards are gone and school closures have continued under a new set of legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting the Public Schools Branch against the communities they attempt to serve.

georgetownsossignAll 56 schools on the Island have been reviewed and the consolidation plan proposes to rezone or close the schools affecting 2,500 students, 700 of whom are rural children and teens. A coalition to Save Island Schools has emerged and prominent Islanders like former Liberal Cabinet member Alan Buchanan are now calling for a complete review of the grueling, divisive process and proposing constructive alternatives. Two schools on Eastern PEI, Belfast Consolidated School and Georgetown Elementary School, have responded by calling for a pause in the closure process so they can embark on a school-centred community revitalization initiative.

Two of Ontario’s leading authorities, Bill Irwin of Huron University College and Mark Seasons at the Waterloo University School of Planning, are challenging the basic financial efficiency assumptions behind school closures and essentially overlooking the social and educational costs.  Since 2012, Irwin and Seasons have been aggregating research in support of small schools and urging school authorities to embrace best practices in community planning and public engagement.  Much like my own book, Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities (2011), their work demonstrates the serious and lasting impacts of closures, including the depletion of local financial, social and human capital.

Provincial education ministers have the authority to declare a Moratorium on the School Review process, an option exercised in April 2013 by then N.S. Education Minister Ramona Jennex. The pretext then was to secure sufficient time to assess the fairness of the former process and to consider the merits of a new alternative – community hub schools.  

A Schools at the Centre community development strategy  would be far superior to the “old school” model of school consolidation. . It’s time for Education Ministers and their Departments to take the lead in shifting the terms of engagement from “threatened closures” to community-based, school-centred, rural economic and social development.

saveislandschoolsgeorgetownchainThe Georgetown Conferences on Rural Renewal (October 2013 and June 2016) generated high expectations.  Hundreds of delegates  embraced the idea that you can have viable small rural schools run on an economically efficient basis and tapping into the potential of local social innovation and digitally networked local schools. Stopping the consolidation express train in PEI and elsewhere in rural Canada would allow the time to develop a comprehensive Rural Economic Development Strategy instead of simply closing schools and abandoning more rural communities.

Transforming small schools into viable, lively community hubs and incubators for social enterprise is the way of the near future.  Some small, under-enrolled schools will continue to close, but let’s hope it’s the right ones. Time will tell whether the “Old School” model of school consolidation is superceded by a new approach focusing on school-centred community revitalization.

What’s driving the relentless movement to consolidate small schools and regionalize K-12 education services? Do claims of economic efficiency or economies of scale hold any water, when all costs are considered over a five year time horizon? What’s standing in the way of community-wide planning and the re-purposing of community hub schools?  Who will be the first community to succeed in creating a fully evolved, viable and sustainable community hub school? 

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Walking or biking to school is making a little comeback in one traffic clogged neighbourhood in North Vancouver.  On a sleepy Friday morning in late April a steady parade of kids and parents, accompanied by the mayor and local councillor, on foot and on bike, streamed down the boulevard sidewalks on their way to Canyon Heights Elementary School.  The festive  “Freedom Friday”  public event has become a hit with families and has helped to spike the numbers of kids walking or biking to school.

WalkableSchoolsFeedomFridayParent groups like the North Vancouver North Shore Safe Routes Advocates have been front and centre in a “movement afoot” in North American cities and towns to reclaim school communities from the “me-first car culture.”  Community wellness and active transportation advocacy groups are springing-up, mostly in cities, in places as diverse as Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The proportion of people who use active transportation – getting around without the use of a car –  has been on a steady decline for decades and it’s particularly evident in and around local schools.  ParticipAction’s 2015 report card on children’s physical activity gave Canada’s kids a D-minus for the third consecutive year. Fifty-eight per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were kids. Only 28 per cent of their kids walk today.

The streets around our local schools become totally gridlocked when, in the words of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail editorial,  “legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up.  The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don’t have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.”

WalkableSchoolsGTADataA 2011 report by Metrolinx surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars. In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents now drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school.  Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.

Local health authorities and active transportation groups are attempting to turn back the tide. Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, under fire for recent school closures, endorsed a 2015 Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) Charter and now works in partnership with the city and its sister Catholic board.

School boards and education ministries have been instrumental in contributing to the decline in walkable schools.  School closures lead to regional consolidation, moving kids further and further away from their designated school. Establishing  speciality academies, French Immersion, and international baccalaureate schools have also contributed to the withering and disappearance of neighbourhood schools.

An even more important factor in the decline of kids on foot has been the nagging but totally unfounded perception that it’s not safe for kids to walk. “Something happened along the way where ‘stranger danger’ took over,” says Carol Sartor, a Vancouver safe route advocate and school travel planner.  The reality is quite different: The RCMP estimate the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are about one in 14 million.

WalkingSchoolBusActive transportation programs are not immune from budget cuts in times of austerity.  A year ago, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre slammed the Nova Scotia government for cutting funding for their walk to school programs across the province.  The budget cut, EAC’s Janet Barlow said, not only cut “longstanding and highly successful walk and bike to school initiatives,” but “hurt kids across the province.”

The EAC initiative had been provincially funded for 12 years and its funding had grown from $50,000 to $105,000 per year in the previous three years. Under a Nova Scotia Health and Wellness strategy, known as THRIVE,  the EAC programs had spread to 24 urban and rural schools reaching and over 2,000 students. In addition to helping kids become more active, the programs were also designed to encourage pedestrian and biking safety.

Student transportation often emerges as a bone of contention in the school review for closure process.  When the Hamilton-Wentworth school board was considering the closure of 11 more of its schools in May 2014, City Council weighed in, endorsing the safe school routes charter in an attempt to stave-off or delay the proposed closures.  Safe transportation, walking and bus distances became a critical factor, activating a joint city-board committee that had been moribund for years.

School closures definitely compound the problem of declining walkability for school children and teens. In the case of the 2014 Hamilton school closure controversy, Dr. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of closures.

“School closures cause a loss of community identity,” Dr. Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.” He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.” The Hamiliton ASST Charter embraced that position affirming the city and school board’s longer-term and ongoing commitment to “active and sustainable school transportation.”

The walkable school movement faces an uphill battle against school consolidation and a car-driven culture. What’s standing in the way of implementing school-wide active transportation programs?  How can school boards professing support for active student transportation justify closing schools and forcing more families to either bus or drive kids over longer and longer distances?  Will it take “traffic gridlock” around schools to produce a change in school siting and planning policies? 

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A year after Nova Scotia’s official adoption of the Hub School model and the imposition of a set of school-level regulations, the Province of Ontario is now preparing to embark on a Community Hub initiative of its own. While the Maritime province was first out of the gate in June 2014 with Education Act amendments, the recent “rejection” of three grassroots Hub School projects in the rural communities of Maitland, River John, and Wentworth, has stalled the venture in its tracks.SaveLocalSchoolsSign

On August 10, 2015, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne publicly endorsed a special report by provincial consultant Karen Pitre calling for closed public schools to be given a second life as “community hubs.” Premier Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals are certainly much more active than their N.S. counterparts in promoting the changes and clearly see ‘hubification’ as a provincial priority.

The Nova Scotia experience, so far, has produced a few bitter lessons for provincial policy-makers and Hub School advocates alike. First and foremost, without committed and determined “cage-busting” political leadership, policy pronouncements go nowhere.

Ontario may be playing ‘catch up’ on hub schools, but that province, with visible political leadership, is taking a far more comprehensive, short- and long-term, approach to transforming schools into hubs.

In Ontario, the hub school initiative is being driven as much by urban neighbourhood imperatives as by rural village concerns. It was all precipitated by the Toronto District School Board governance review conducted by Margaret Wilson and related provincial school facilities studies revealing that the province was littered with “half-empty” and abandoned schools.

Ms. Pitre’s report recommends an immediate measure to lengthen the time allotted for school site disposal, giving public bodies and community groups 180 days to come up with hub proposals. Her plan would also allow prospective buyers to pay less than market value and open the door to shared funding by the province.

Instead of proclaiming legislation and then imposing restrictive regulations, Ontario is looking at clearing away the red tape to preserve schools as public buildings and making space-sharing easier (not harder) for community activities, health clinics, daycares, seniors’ centres, and cafes.

Jumping ahead with enabling legislation without integrating community planning and investing in making it work may turn out to defeat the whole Nova Scotia project. Leaving Hub School advocates to produce proposals without any visible provincial or school board support likely doomed the pilot projects. Two months after the axe fell, River John hub school promoters are getting the ‘runaround’ in their determined attempts to get someone, somewhere to take responsibility for community renewal.

Will Ontario’s Community Hub initiative suffer the same fate? The prospects look brighter in Ontario for a number of reasons. From the beginning, Nova Scotia’s provincial strategy was essentially reactive, driven by a desire to quell a 2013-14 rural earthquake of widespread and fiercely determined local school closure protests. Community hubs were an idea proposed by “outsiders” and almost reluctantly adopted by Nova Scotia education authorities.

Community hubs are already more accepted and common in Ontario than in Nova Scotia even without the enabling legislation. Some 53 examples of hubs are cited in Pitre’s report, most located in urban and suburban communities rather than rural localities. The big push at Queen’s Park is also coming from Toronto and major population centres with far more political clout.

Nova Scotia hub school proponents faced a wall of administrative obstacles and totally unrealistic cost recovery targets, and Ontario is looking instead at clearing away the red tape. In addition, Pitre’s report proposes recognizing the Social Return on Investment (SROI) in hubs. There is a clear recognition that investing in hubs produces social dividends, including lower delinquency rates, better health outcomes, healthier lives for seniors, and higher levels of community trust.

Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform schools and other public buildings into viable community hubs. It starts with tackling the fundamental structural constraints: the need for integrated community planning, the adoption of an integrated cross-departmental service delivery model, and the provision, where needed, of sustainable public funding.

Gaining access to school space is a bigger challenge than finding the keys to Fort Knox. Only a multi-lateral, whole of government approach will break into the educational silo.  At the school level, principals will have to accept broader management responsibilities, including commitments in July and August where today there is no visible “property management.”

Creating viable community hubs is a true test of political and educational leadership. Little or nothing that is sustainable will happen without busting open the “iron cage” of education. Only then will we see community hub schools that fill the glaring local social and community service gaps left by the regionalization of public services.

What’s standing in the way of establishing community hubs in emptying and abandoned public schools? What went wrong in Nova Scotia, the Canadian province first out of the gate with enabling legislation? Will Ontario fare any better with a more comprehensive “whole of government” policy framework?  And where will we find the “cage-busting ” leadership at the provincial, board, and school levels?

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The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

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Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Ontario, are on the front lines in the ongoing battle over school closures, mostly concentrated in small rural communities. With school consolidation on pause in Nova Scotia the wake of the 2013 School Closure Moratorium, it has returned with a vengeance in both N.B. and Ontario. The renewed threat in New Brunswick has now sparked a feisty province-wide Rural Schools Coalition.

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A dozen small New Brunswick communities are currently in a state of upheaval with local schools facing possible closure, sparking growing popular resistance from Dorchester to Pennfield and north to Dalhousie, affecting Anglophone and Acadian communities alike. In Ontario, Education Minister Liz Sandals has not only identified some 600 schools as “half full” and ripe for review, but now introduced legislative changes to “speed-up” that province’s “School Accommodation Review” process.

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), the Education Department is imposing an arbitrary, cost-driven “school sustainability” process upon supporters of the threatened schools. It looks, sounds, and feels distinctly like a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their rural communities. After blowing through the first dozen, forty-two more schools, 27 anglophone and 15 francophone, are next in line.

Ontario’s new School Review process, unveiled in late March 2015, reflects the so-called “speed-up” agenda. Faced with a deficit reduction challenge, Minister Sandals has enacted changes shortening the timelines from seven months to five, cutting the number of public consultation meeting from 4 to 2, and limiting the criteria to “impact on student achievement.” Eliminating the criterion “value to the community” has upset municipal mayors and re-ignited the Community School Alliance, led by London-Middlesex small school advocate, Doug Reycraft. 

Hundreds of Save Our School Signs have appeared all over rural N.B. and the whole exercise threatens to kill the “community spirit” that still animates much of rural New Brunswick. In the case of two Anglophone East School District communities, Dorchester and Riverside-Albert, local public school supporters were given less than two months to a react to weighty facilities cost reports and documents stacking the deck in favour of closure.

The New Brunswick School Closure process is not only top-down and draconian, but also completely at odds with best policy and practice elsewhere. Compared with School Review for closure rules in Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, the current practice violates every principle of fairness, legitimacy, and civic engagement.

“Procedural fairness” is so narrowly circumscribed under N.B. Policy 409 that it amounts to little more than a commitment to carry out prescribed, pre-scheduled public hearings designed simply to validate the closure recommendation. It’s top-down decision making in the extreme, driven entirely by the provincial government’s cost reduction targets and based upon the unproven assumption that moving students to bigger schools is more cost-effective.

Estimated cost savings accruing from closure, in the case of both the Dorchester and Riverside schools, running to $1.8 million, are grossly inflated, based upon projected staff reductions and compounded costs accumulated after years of deferred maintenance. Additional busing costs, at $50,000 per vehicle annually, are not acknowledged and community school cost reduction plans are simply not being considered.

Schools listed for closure are excluded completely from the information gathering process and presented with “infrastructure planning” reports that put facilities ahead of students, parents and communities. Under the policy, closure proceedings can be sprung on schools at any time, with insufficient time to formulate a response let alone generate viable, community-based alternatives.

The standard model of School Accommodation Reviews, utilized in Ontario gives school communities ample time (5 to 7 months), builds-in more school-level engagement, and provides for a provincial mediator. It’s far from perfect, but respects the right of aggrieved communities to proper representation and legitimate opportunities to be heard before school boards make their final decision. No school would ever be closed on the tight timeline currently being implemented in N.B.

Just across the border, in Nova Scotia, the whole School Review process is radically different and aimed at achieving cost efficiencies through a brand new school-centred community planning model, supporting the gradual re-purposing of school buildings. Schools are viewed as community assets and not simply liabilities to be abandoned and off-loaded to local towns and villages.

Under the newly established October 2014 N.S. model, school boards are required to engage municipalities, school communities, local groups and business organizations in a Long Range Planning process. Schools with declining enrollments are encouraged to develop Community Hub plans aimed at re-purposing surplus school space and generating revenue to assist in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Once the initial spadework has been done, the School Review process goes forward guided by a “School Options Committee” mandated to find local solutions. Only when such efforts flounder, do the schools close.

New Brunswick’s School Closure policy was already grossly unfair, and Education Minister Serge Rousselle has just made it even worse. His latest revisions, announced in mid-stream, adding two “triggers” for closure – under 100 students or 30 per cent or less occupancy — merely confirm the suspicions of rural New Brunswickers. Appropriating the concept of a “trigger” mechanism, borrowed from the world of firearms, may have been a Freudian slip. If Express Train 409 does not run you over, then the DECs can pull the trigger to kill the vitality and resilience of rural communities, leaving them school-less and eventually childless.

New Brunswick can do much better — and Ontario should know better than to deny the critical role schools play in smaller communities. It’s time to re-think the current move to “Hurry Up” school closure process, to take stock of what happened in Nova Scotia, and to build local communities into a more school-centred rural revitalization process.

What’s “fair” about imposing School Consolidation and springing closures on struggling rural communities? What’s driving the “speed-up” in provincial School Review process time-frames for closure?  Where’s the hard evidence to support the purported cost savings and operational efficiencies? An how can such bitter, divisive and arbitrary public processes be transformed into community-building, cost-efficiency-generating  exercises?

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