Thursday, December 31, 2009

ARC can't protect downtown from flood of school closures

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Barrie citizens are becoming very familiar with the ARC process. ARC stands for accommodation review committee, a step the public school board must undertake before closing a school.

Recently the Ministry of Education modified the ARC process somewhat. Instead of providing the report to staff, who then make their own recommendation to the board of trustees, ARCs will now report directly to the board. This may help improve direct democracy, but won't solve one of the more serious flaws of the ARC system.

ARCs are triggered by one of two situations. If a region is seeing declining student enrollment, then it will have more classroom spaces than students. Eventually it becomes uneconomical to keep half-empty schools open, and one (or more) must close.

In this case, an ARC is a regional community consultation. Between themselves, affected communities try to find the best combination of schools to accommodate the number and location of students. It can be a frustrating and contentious process, but at least it allows each stakeholder to make their case.

The other situation creating an ARC has serious flaws. When an aging school needs repairs that would cost two-thirds or more of the expense of rebuilding, it can be granted 'prohibitive to repair' (PTR) status.

Once that happens, a certain amount of money per student is set aside by the ministry which could be used to repair, or rebuild, the school. But that's where the problem comes in -- that money could instead be used to expand or upgrade other surrounding schools, by closing the old school and moving the students away.

Why is this inevitable? The ARC comprises parent and stakeholder groups from several schools. If the oldest school is rebuilt, there is no benefit to the other schools. But if the oldest school is closed, money gets spread around to everyone else.

So guess what ends up happening? That's right, the old school gets the axe.

The irony is that this can happen in a situation where student enrollment is not dropping -- or is even expected to grow. A case in point is downtown Barrie.

Although the downtown student population is currently at a low ebb, expectations are that it will turn a corner and start to increase. Overall, our student population is growing with the city; Barrie has one of the youngest populations in Canada.

In this environment, closing downtown schools to bus kids to the fringes makes no sense. It leads to oversized suburban schools and leaves a hole in the heart of downtown. Barrie is trying valiantly to follow orders from Ontario's Ministry of Infrastructure to increase downtown density by attracting more residents.

Yet at the same time, school board procedures, backed by decisions at the Ministry of Education, are taking away a key ingredient to a vibrant downtown community.

The ARCs for King Edward and Prince of Wales elementary schools, Barrie's only downtown public elementary schools, were a foregone conclusion. Schools were made to compete for renovation funds, with the one branded 'prohibitive to repair' sacrificed and cannibalized. Soon the same process will be launched for Barrie Central Collegiate, with the same predictable results.

It doesn't have to be this way. A task force could identify creative solutions to save Central, with better support from the province.

Barrie MPP Aileen Carroll has denied that the Ministry of Education has a role, but that's a cop-out.

True, the ministry can't order the board to keep or close specific schools, but it could provide funding incentives to keep downtown schools open.

Such co-operation between ministries would be sensible, yet it doesn't seem to occur to Carroll or her government.

For shame.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.


  1. Erich,
    I wonder if you are aware that Peterborough Collegiate (PCVS), is going through a very similar fight for it's life right now!
    What was the final outcome for Barrie?

  2. I had not heard of Peterborough's situation, but I sympathize with you. In Barrie, the whole community (including businesses, families & students from many schools, city council and provincial candidates) rallied behind finding ways to keep Central open, so the ARC put forward a plan to give a few years to find rebuild partnerships, and the Board accepted that. But now it's in the Board's hands to get these partnerships in place, or the fallback is still to close the school. Since the Board seemed to favour closure, it will be a bit of a nail-biter.