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.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Christmas gift to you, reader

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Here's my Christmas gift to you: $80 in your pocket next year. Read on for details.

I leave my computer on all the time, 24/7. It's an old habit from back when boot-up was slow and conventional wisdom said turning your computer on and off caused more wear on the processor and hard drive than leaving it on.

Nowadays, the jury is out on which approach is better, but boot times are, if anything, slower. I have a computer that I need to access on short notice many times a day, so waiting to start it up each time is not an option. Instead, I just leave it on and let the screen saver turn off the monitor (the largest power draw) after a period of non-use.

But that still means using unnecessary electricity much of the day, and also leaves my computer open to lurking viruses that prey on anyone using Windows. (My Rogers Internet connection is always on, too).

Recently, however, a friend* twigged me to something really useful: a program that puts my computer to 'sleep' when I'm not using it, but 'wakes it up' almost instantly when I need it. Most laptops have something similar as a standard part of their power settings, but it's not standard in a desktop.

My friend is Jim Harris, former leader of the Green Party of Canada and fellow newspaper columnist. Now he's in private consultation helping companies become more profitable by saving energy and reducing waste.

Many companies leave their office computers on all night, so their IT department can do upgrades over the network in the wee hours when workers are gone. But most of the night the computers sit unused, powered up and drawing electricity.

A company can purchase this software for its computers and install it, and the computers will sleep when they're not being updated. Installing this on 10,000 computers saved British Columbia hospitals $232,000 in the first year.

And for you the home user, the software is free. It's called Edison and is available here.

You tell the program when your normal work times are and when you aren't usually on the computer, and it customizes the sleep times. Then, you tell it how much you pay per kilowatt-hour for electricity and it will calculate how much money you'll save in a year.

It will save me $80 annually. If you like to leave your computer on, download and install this (it takes only minutes) and you'll have more pocket money, too. (You're welcome.)

What I especially like is how it proves a bigger point about saving energy, reducing emissions, and economics.

Whenever people talk about preventing climate change or phasing out fossil fuels, they always fret about "the cost." People assume living greener has to cost us money or hinder the economy.

But programs such as Edison prove the opposite: saving energy can be free. In fact, world-famous management consultants McKinsey & Co. studied the costs of reducing carbon emissions. It found that 40% of reduction measures would not only not cost anything, it would actually save money or generate more profits. That balances out most of the measures which would cost money.

The take-away is that reducing our emissions can be done for very little cost - in the long run, benefiting the economy. So instead of avoiding the issue from fear of expense, we should be embracing efficiency and conservation and putting more money in our own pockets.

We should welcome international agreements which spur us to greater efficiency, because they'll make us richer and healthier, too.

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

* Special thanks to Jim Harris for alerting me to this program.

Friday, December 18, 2009

You say you want a revolution? Become part of the process

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Back in the late 60s and early 70s student protest about social issues was a constant presence. But by the time I entered high school and university in the 80s and 90s, the protest culture had reached its nadir. Not for my generation the sit-ins, teach-ins, and shutdowns. At Waterloo in the 90s, student focus was on getting good grades, good jobs, and having a good time (in that order). Sure, there was the odd demonstration, but it was not a pervasive part of student culture. I demonstrated against the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but most of the other marchers were from the Chinese community. I marched against the launch of the Gulf War, but it didn't turn into a campaign - just an hour of walking and chanting. As I watched Mulroney and Chr├ętien vote together to send our (former) peacekeepers into a combat role and CF-18s flew bomb raids over Iraq, campus eyes focused on textbooks and computer screens.

Of course, students would occasionally rise to protest direct offence like a tuition hike, loss of a treasured lounge space, or blocking Internet porn from school computers. The LesBiGay community fought valiantly (and successfully) against pervasive homophobia. The "Womyn's Centre" fought the spectre of patriarchal oppression, with less visible effect. A remnant of hard-core leftists dominated national student organizations and campus newspapers and dreamed of socialist revolution. Beyond that, students just weren't involved beyond their own horizons.

Now the pendulum has swung back. The issue, overwhelmingly, is the future and whether it will be livable for human civilization. While entrenched corporate interests and their beholden governments dither and delay (with Canada the ultimate example), the planet lurches towards climatic catastrophe.

Young people, with the most to lose and the least invested in the old ways, are getting angry and getting active.

At a recent manufacturing conference at Ryerson University, this attitude was put into action right in front of me. Veteran union organizer and Ryerson professor Buzz Hargrove introduced a panel including Ontario's Minister of Economic Development & Trade Sandra Pupatello, John Galt, President of Canadian success story Husky Injection Molding, and Gordon Nixon, CEO of RBC. It was the last who drew the protesters' ire. Apparently RBC's green awards and programs don't measure up against $50 billion of RBC financing for tar sands development.

The protest itself was well-orchestrated. As Nixon began to speak, two students arose behind my left shoulder and unrolled a critical banner, carrying it to the front. Facing the audience and cameras, they made some statements before being escorted out (peacefully) by security. As the panel resumed, two more arose from the back with another banner which they marched to the front. Security again arrived for another peaceful exit, although one shouted that it was Nixon, not himself, who should be removed.

With eyes now peeled for banners, the tactic changed and one after another, students rose from the audience to denounce RBC's enviro-sins, with each waiting incognito until Nixon was due to speak again. The planning and organization were flawless, as everyone tensely waited for the next event to unfold. Even after it was all over the tension remained, and one of the student questioners had her microphone turned off when she mentioned the tar sands and green finance, even though she was not associated with the protest.

Although the event was filmed for Rogers TV and the Business News Network, I doubt that part will ever see broadcast. I also doubt the students won over any new supporters from the audience of economists and industry reps, nor have they changed Gordon Nixon's mind or his plans for RBC. So, the effect of this protest can really only be to inspire and energize the participants to do still more.

On Oct. 24 , tens of thousands of Canadians took part in over 150 events nationwide for the International Day of Climate Action. Three thousand massed on Parliament Hill, 5,000 in Vancouver, thousands at Queen's Park (and a few dozen, including me, in Craighurst). The young, Canada's future, were well represented. But this global event received minimal media attention in Canada. In frustration, some passionate young participants took their message to the House of Commons visitors' gallery and were forcibly ejected, to much ballyhoo. And MPs dither.

More recently in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a series of sit-ins have been staged in the offices of Conservative MPs Jim Prentice, John Baird, Rona Ambrose, Jim Flaherty, Andrew Saxton and Gary Lunn. Peaceful protesters demanding to be heard have been arrested and removed. Greenpeace activists scaled the House of Commons to occupy the roof and hang banners. The lights were on, but was anyone home?

In this day of corporate media ownership and political spin, protest seems to have diminished effectiveness.

What makes MPs really sit up and take notice is the risk of losing their jobs. Those who truly want to change things can continue to demonstrate, but must also get active in electoral politics.

Rather than being thrown out of the House of Commons, get elected in. Elections are no longer a once-in-four-years ritual of re-electing a dictatorial false majority. Today's minority governments and frequent elections can empower a concerned public, if they grasp the opportunity.

On the scale of effective activity, apathy is of course the worst. "Slactivism" -signing online petitions, or joining Facebook groups - is not a whole lot better. Demonstration can certainly raise awareness, but awareness itself doesn't fix the world. The surest way to change society is to find the party or candidates that best reflect your views, then work hard during elections to see that they win.

Your help in volunteer hours or money can make a real difference. Lower contribution limits have helped to level the playing field, while poor voter turnout means that every vote cast counts double. For young people it may seem a slow process, but they have the most time over which to make the greatest impact.

For others, the futility of "strategically" trying to vote someone out of office is exceeded only by that of staying out of the process altogether, so take your cause to the polls and demand to be heard. Positive action to change the faces of power - by putting new people there, not just rotating the same old government and opposition - is within our grasp, if we but reach out for it. By engaging effectively, you not only speak to the government; you become it.

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

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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Trade is almost Fair in Barrie

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

"Life isn't fair," we hear. Yet from childhood on, we demand fair treatment. Luckily there are things we can do to spread fairness; one is Fair Trade.

A fair trade means each side receives benefit from their exchange. Neither takes advantage of the other, neither loses out, gain is shared equitably. Sadly, in today's globalized "free trade" world, this is too often not the case.

Poor farmers in developing nations are particularly vulnerable. Many switch from growing food to raising export crops to increase income. Then commodity prices drop and they receive lower prices, becoming even poorer than before, but have lost the land, tools, or skills for growing their own food again. Fair Trade ensures exporting helps farmers in developing countries instead of pushing them further into poverty.

At the producer (farmer) end, Fair Trade means they receive a sufficient price to support their families, afford decent health care, educate their children, and invest in their community. They can produce amounts their land can support without depleting water, forest, or soil or using excessive chemicals. (Fair Trade products are often organic or less chemical-intensive than industrially-farmed ones.)

Fair Trade labelling organizations ensure these standards are met. On larger plantations, they ensure workers get a decent, living wage and aren't mistreated, that there is no forced child labour. By reducing exploitation of foreign workers, fair trade also protects wages in our own country from unfair competition.

At the other end, as consumers, we can choose Fair Trade products. The best-known fairly-traded commodity is coffee, but there are also fair trade tea, sugar, cocoa and chocolate, wine, clothing, flowers, bananas, even soccer balls. By buying them, we help protect the earth through support of sustainable farming and avoid taking unfair advantage of the world's poor. Because Fair Trade organizations cut out middlemen, the products are priced similar to premium brands; you need not hurt your wallet for fairness.

Of course, we need retailers offering Fair Trade products. Helping this happen falls to the Barrie Fair Trade Working Group (BFTWG). Formed in 2005 by Bob Jowett and Bruce Morton, this volunteer group works hard making Barrie a Fair Trade city. To be certified we must reach several goals, and the BFTWG has nearly gotten us there. A city this size needs at least 28 stores and 14 cafes carrying two or more Fair Trade products; at last count we were at 27 and 11 -- almost there.

Certification needs the support of local organizations, and already a number of public and separate schools, churches, service clubs, Georgian College, the library, the MacLaren and RVH are on board. There must be media and public awareness; BFTWG has had newspaper and TV coverage, as well as frequently hosting or attending local public events. They work with Living Green, Georgian's GEAR, and the Simcoe County District School Board to educate on sustainable production and consumption. The YMCA even awarded the BFTWG its annual Peace Medallion last month to show support and recognize their hard work.

The last step for Barrie to be certified a Fair Trade city is the stamp of the city's government. Council passed a motion supporting a Fair Trade and green purchase policy, and, last month, established a task group to look into passing the final hurdle.

We're almost there. Make sure you mention your support for fair trade to your local councillor, and keep buying Fair Trade products. Very soon, thanks to the efforts of Bob and Bruce and their fellow volunteers, you can be proud to live in one of Canada's first Fair Trade cities.

For more information, visit FairTradeBarrie.com.

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