Diary of a Mad Trustee June 17th 2009

Our Trustee Eden

Our Trustee Eden

Principiis obsta…Finem respice

Resist the beginning… Consider the end

 

 

This meeting was quite the eclectic mix of the good, the bad and the ugly so this is a bit of a long commentary.

The feature presentation was the tendering of the district achievement contract – due to arrive at the ministry by July 15th and in my view the only reason public schools actually exist.

I know…  you thought our schools were in place to nurture learning and wisdom while employing a large group of dedicated professionals and trades people in a meaningful way. Nah…it is all about generating the damn achievement contact. This modification to the previous ‘accountability contract’ with the advent of Bill 20 proves the adage: you can change something without improving it.

The schemes that have arisen from the language in Bill 20 have given us a number of modifications – including the hiring at great expense by the ministry (that means us) of at least 4 uber superintendents to direct and inspect our districts and even to recommend firing of elected boards if the targets for achievement are not successfully met – despite the fact that Victoria ceded the right to appoint superintendents to local school boards over 40 years ago.

Meanwhile the pettiest calculations are trotted out to demonstrate that in the last year the technical aspects of instruction have been met (or not) in some measure. There are at least three good reasons to dispute the value of this exercise – at least three.

First we have an army of well trained educators spending vast amounts of time preparing, administering and marking tests – all unproductive busywork that does not enhance learning and must really be quite soul destroying for anyone who genuinely thought they would spend their teaching career imparting the finest learning experience to children instead of training them to connect the dots for the ministry. Second – there is no evidence what so ever that these batteries of tests and the balloon folding that the kids and teachers go through has improved their learning at all. Finally – as you wend your weary way through the ‘Achievement Contract'(soon to be followed by Achievement Contract- Revenge of the Tedious) it becomes clear there is no recognition on any level of the inequalities of opportunity our children labour  under. I guess we are to assume full stomachs, adequate clothing and ample family incomes and education backgrounds have no visible impact on the progress kids can make in school.

All this nonsense, all this farting around with various initiatives and approaches to education to avoid doing the obvious – the  one thing we all know will supply the best hope for advancing all our kids’ chances – well resourced classrooms with fewer students, high levels of support for challenged children and meals that feed their bodies and brains.

And most important a fierce stake through the icy heart of poverty. Amazing how much trouble the ministry is willing to undertake to sidestep providing ideal learning conditions.

The good news -well there is some- and I am extremely pleased, proud and pumped to tell you that after two and a half years of dry rot in the relationship with our colleagues from the unions, parent groups and aboriginal community characterised by their expulsion from our board committees, we have now recovered the lost committees (Operations, Human Resources and Finance) and will now seat reps from all our partners on those committees. Their substantial wisdom is no longer banished and the committee meetings will now ring with their questions, experience, concern and devotion to public education. Thank god, they are back – if many hands make light work then this will help the trustees who wish to see the system defended rather than settling for the heady mix of crumbs and propaganda.

 Of course as it must sometimes transpire- there was -at this meeting- the mother of all cosmic ‘AH CRAP’ moments when during question period a member of the gallery asked the board chair if we were likely to hear about approval for a new school at the Lake before the end of the summer as promised by the architect. Our very stalwart Secretary Treasurer did what no administrator would normally do in the situation – instead of offering some mumbled banality about not having heard yet- he showed great fortitude and simply told us the inconvenient truth. The Ministry of Education has evidently confirmed that funding for capital projects is effectively frozen for three years.

 I do not remember hearing any discourse around this during the May provincial election. Now that we have settled back into our regular lives as victims of the latest televised Gumball Rally 3000 ,we discover that our dark sense of skepticism was not only justified but wildly optimistic in that we thought the ministry  would do us the courtesy of stringing us along for a while yet. Or at least buy the town of Lake Cowichan dinner first.

 Quick recap:

  • The mould issue at AB Greenwell had been widely known and reported for almost a decade if not longer by custodians, maintenance and teachers and other support workers. 
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  • When ABG was emptied in February 2008, there was already remedial work (Annual Facilities Grant $1,175,000) and seismic work in the pipe – all approved funding. Many of the problems that had plagued the school would have been attended to under this renovation. The reported timeline would have led to renos taking place throughout the summer and fall of 2008 and completed by early 2009 at the latest. 
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  • According to CEI (architect firm) last spring (2008), ABG had ‘good bones’ and was a candidate for renovation. 
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  • In the meantime – over a year passed and we were then told by CEI that the school is no longer a viable candidate for repair and must be replaced. It was grudgingly admitted that the delay in restoring the building had contributed to some of the deterioration. The worst area – the gym floor is the sticking point. 
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  • It should be pointed that the board and the district would have been more responsible to community and to the public assets it is entrusted with if the response to the crisis had been met with immediate repair and ongoing air testing to get the much needed school back and running for the families. Despite their legitimate concerns this would -I think- have been a substantial improvement over the current situation and the fears of some of the staff and parents could have been allayed with appropriate measures. 
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  • Previously we were told that it would cost over 5 million dollars to renovate ABG while a new school of similar size would cost about 7 million dollars. I question both figures – I believe that much of the 5 million would have been already procured through the AFG and the approved seismic project and further that the $5million price tag is excessive. So this would not be ‘new money’. As to the cost of the new small school since it would be roughly the size of the recently completed Crofton School surely the cost would be closer to that project which I believe has run at over 10 million. This would have made the reno option very cost effective and doable. 
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  • Now – it seems the district in its wisdom has seen fit to abandon the school to the elements and we must look at a new building. 
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  • Okay – let’s do that. First the pressure to agree to a large school to house all the elementary kids is strong – this suggests a school which will accommodate almost four hundred kids. We are told this will allow more resources but in reality if you review the report from the senior staff supplied last fall you will see that there is no more resources per student in any of the areas shown – there is just an amalgamation of what is now available in the two separate schools(Palsson and ABG). 
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  • There has been no discussion around the value of small neighbourhood schools – it is now an unrefuted fact that small schools provide greater support for learning, for social development ,for safety, for emotional wellbeing, for employee satisfaction, for environmental benefit yet we have no ambition from our district to dwell on this critical component. 
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  • There are two crucial pressures on the enrolment at the lake and since we are forced for now by the provincial fetish for headcount rather than distinctive need in small communities to care deeply about this feature, we should examine those. There is the dissatisfaction with the travel arrangements to Yount and this is driving some drift to Duncan, second is discontent with the configuration at the lake which places the grade 6 kids at school with the older high school kids in what is no longer a ‘school within a school’. It remains important to ask why small communities are continuing to be punished with service withdrawal simply because they have smaller numbers of children who need an education in their own community.
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  • It is important to remember several things about this situation – we clearly never had and do not now have a guarantee for any new school – small or large. We are being asked to relinquish our hopes for retaining the system at the Lake and properly maintaining the schools that are needed for distinct neighbourhood needs for a fairly improbable project. And the promise of a new large school presupposes the closure and sale of both Palsson and Yount with no real discussion with the Lake community about the wisdom of this approach.
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It is interesting that the intermediate option – that of building a new small school and arranging some needed maintenance at Palsson is not on the table. Why? It is by far the least costly and sustains the small school environment that Lake Cowichan and area has enjoyed. The deteriorations and shortcomings of all the schools at the Lake are not the fault of the community or the schools or the staff – they are the fault of diminished financial commitment to those sites and the people in them.

It should act as a prime indicator to the Lake that the district sold off the best possible location for any new building for a song (JH Boyd) despite making no effort to consult with the wider community or listening to the clear opposition that existed around this sale.

Finalising a commitment to a large new school on the understanding that the other schools will be decommissioned and sold is not an option for me. In all ways – particularly fiscally and environmentally it makes more sense to restore ABG – once closure and sale is set in motion regardless of the outcome, the damage to the present schools will be done and there will be further downward pressures on enrolment at the lake.

Things to remember:

Do not listen to what you hear, listen to what you know! And the Lake knows allot about district and provincial neglect of its needs. If we sit back and settle for a long term plan that has little or no prospect while setting aside our demands for short and medium term commitment to our present schools we will lose everything.

Matters to consider as we await this approval:

Reaffirm commitment to maintenance, programs and bussing issues at the Lake

All planning should place emphasis on the locations that are available at the Lake through discussion around quality educational fundamentals rather than mere economic criteria.

However- the main event was the achievement contract and if you think about it, there is a strong connection between the neglect at the Lake and the systematic obsession with mind-numbing assessment. Ultimately we must always answer the questions – Why are we here? Why do we even have a public education system and why is there so much contention around sustaining it for everyone’s benefit?

 The same ideology that applies economic criteria to educational needs at the Lake also upholds industrial approaches to learning.

 The senseless genuflection to achievement goals that throttle knowledge should remind those of us responsible for the care of our schools just this: success in school cannot be defined by the assessment of material administered through a feeding tube – education simply reveals what is there to begin with – a deep love of learning and exploration in us all- what fuels this is a fine thing; what extinguishes it … a crime.

 Your Trustee Pal

Eden

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