Thursday, December 10, 2009

School closure process a lesson in frustration for parents

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Anyone following the downtown Barrie revitalization will be interested in hearing the woes of Prince of Wales Elementary School supporters. Their story is not encouraging.

You want schools downtown to support revitalization? Not likely.

Only our city council has stood behind them. The Simcoe County District School Board has not. Ontario's Ministry of Education has not.

The school board initiated the closure process, having Prince of Wales declared 'prohibitive to repair', triggering an Accommodation Review Committee (ARC).
This process pits different school communities against each other to scavenge the funds available if older schools are closed. Although many viable options to keep Prince of Wales open were presented, and the myriad community benefits of retaining Barrie's last downtown public elementary school were put forth, it was a foregone conclusion.

Prince of Wales students are to be scattered to other schools, the repair funds following them. Essentially, the downtown community is being cannibalized.

But there were many flaws noted in the ARC process. Per their rights, Prince of Wales parents requested a review of the school board's failure to follow their own policies.

A similar step had been taken when King Edward School was slated for closure a few years ago. A consultant was hired to review whether or not our school board followed policy. According to parents involved, he didn't.

Instead, in their account, he talked about his own qualifications, dismissed the concerns of the people gathered (lawyers, architects, educators, and concerned parents), made misinformed and inappropriate comments and wound up writing a report that merely called for greater communication.

This from someone who failed to communicate with the attendees about the very issue he had been hired to address -- whether or not policy had been followed.

But the board paid him and thanked him for doing this 'work' and, with no regard for the parents' unaddressed process concerns, went ahead and closed King Edward.

When Prince of Wales supporters learned this same consultant had been re-hired as the 'objective' outside reviewer for their school, they immediately wrote the Ministry of Education, formally requesting a different independent reviewer be appointed. They listed the reasons they felt his work was a failure last time and why they didn't trust him.

The Ministry of Education dismissed those concerns and sent him anyway. They also imposed a meeting date on very short notice with no chance to reschedule. 'He's a busy guy', parents heard. And the community members aren't?

So it played out as before. The people around the table felt they had been treated like delinquent children. He again boasted about his own accomplishments. He dismissed the many policy breaches that were supposed to be the focus of his review.

The community again wrote the Ministry of Education regarding the numerous breaches of policy, the board's refusal to provide another consultant and his inability to deal with the concerns raised at the meeting.

Guess what they got back? A form letter saying that our politicians care about us and they trust in their choice. He's an expert consultant, after all.

Parents haven't seen his report. They don't need to. They already know. They've lived this storyline before.

So thanks to Barrie city council for having vision.

Thanks to the Ministry of Infrastructure that has ordered Barrie to revitalize its city core.

Maybe that ministry could talk to the Ministry of Education.

Or maybe our folks at the Ministry of Education need to go back to Grade 1 to learn about manners, and Grade 5 to learn about civics. Maybe the kindergartners could teach them something about the anti-bullying curriculum.

(A special thank you to the parents and community of Prince of Wales who contributed their experiences to the content of this column.)

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

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