• On School Closures and the ARC process

    On Tuesday September 30th, I participated in the TVDSB public meeting in regard to the South Central London ARC on closing Hamilton Rd. schools (the schools in this consideration are Aberdeen, Trafalgar, and Ealing Public Schools).

    I wanted to briefly share what I said to Trustees, as well as a couple of thoughts on the ARC process.

    Given the state of the ARC process, which is now considering the minority report to keep Ealing and Aberdeen open and close Trafalgar (in a 4-3 vote, the initial recommendation was to close Ealing and Aberdeen, renovating Trafalgar at considerable cost into a “mega school”), I spoke to defer making any decision at this time. I stated that frankly the current Board no longer has the “moral authority” of a mandate to make the decision. We are in an election campaign period, with the closure of nominations on September 12th, I informed the Trustees they should be holding themselves to the same “lame duck” status which city councillors must hold themselves to, making no decisions on items of greater than $50,000 cost during the campaign period. Although not required to by law (unlike council), they should nonetheless show some respect for democratic electoral processes and not use the school closure decision as an opportunity to win votes.

    Instead, I said my preference would be to keep Ealing, Trafalgar and Aberdeen schools open and review the situation in a year. This would not only mean the decision was made under the mandate of the new board, but it would also come after the new Board:

    1) knows the new composition of the new city council and its strategic direction and community investment plans as laid out in the new council’s first budget.

    2) can consider the full impact of closures and how they relate to the adoption of a new 20 year master plan–the London Plan–as well as the Strengthening Neighbourhoods, Community Association, and Business Association strategic plans, and how all of those things interact.

    Schools are not islands, they are in fact community hubs that are interconnected with their neighbourhoods and the city as a whole. There needs to be better coordination with city planning and an understanding that sometimes what is easiest or the most short term cost effective option for the School Board is not what is in the long term best interests of the community at large. Financial realities must be weighed into the equation of course, but cannot be the only factors considered.

    I don’t always agree with mayoral candidate Roger Caranci, he’d be the first to tell you that. But we don’t always disagree either, and I agree very strongly with a message he delivered to the School Board at the same public meeting on behalf of the Hamilton Rd. Community Association. It is time to follow suit with the Toronto school board, put a moratorium in place on school closings in the Thames Valley Board, and then Trustees (who need to remember they are elected officials, not Ministry of Education or School Board employees) need to work with City Councillors and put the onus back on the province and MPPs (where it belongs) to step up and act in partnership with the boards and municipalities to keep community schools open and viable.

    I was one of the few presenters of whom the trustees asked any questions, most pointedly from the incumbent against whom I’m running. After trying to get me to provide numbers which I stated I cannot provide because the City of London has not adopted an official plan yet making all numbers at best questionable, I was asked which option I would vote for if I had a vote today. Fair enough question I suppose, and my answer was clear, I would choose to keep two schools open and close one, not close two and create a mega-school with the third. I believe smaller neighbourhood schools better serve our elementary students. However, until we know the direction the city is taking with neighbourhood revitalization efforts, we cannot fairly make that decision. The result of deciding on incomplete information could lead to a situation where in just 3-5 years we have need of a school in a neighbourhood where one was recently closed. That kind of short-sighted planning benefits neither the students, nor the school board budget.

    Finally, it became clear to me listening to parents from all three neighbourhoods that evening as people waited for their turn to speak, that the entire ARC process itself needs to be revisited and potentially even scrapped altogether. The ARC process supposedly is to include the community and give it a voice in the decision making process. The reality is that it pits neighbourhoods against neighbourhoods, and friends against friends, as everyone fights to keep their neighbourhood school open. It also gives the school board, and the Trustees, a political shield from a tough and always unpopular decision. The ARC process allows Trustees to avoid responsibility for their decisions on schools by allowing them to say “we simply listened to and followed the ARC recommendations…”. I don’t claim to have the answer as to how to reform or replace this process, but it is not serving our community well in its current form, creating divisions instead of building consensus. But with the Ontario government looking at reforms to the ARC process, now is the time that someone with my political experience is needed to work with the community to make positive changes to the process.

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