Special Report: Education

Parsing Parkview's Perilous Position

It is easy to place all the blame for neighbourhood-harming school closures on Trustees, but they are making their decisions in a policy context that makes bad decisions all but inevitable.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 30, 2014

A grassroots campaign to keep Parkview Secondary School from closing is gaining momentum after a short documentary video on the school and its celebrated principal, Paul Beattie, took off last week. A petition to put the closure on hold already has 543 signatures (as of this writing), and news articles continue to raise awareness.

Parkview sits on Balsam Avenue North across from Ivor Wynne Stadium. It is home to 230 high school students with learning disabilities and mental health issues, many of them from the city's poorest neighbourhoods. It features effective innovative learning methods, a partnership with Mohawk College and anti-poverty initiatives including a discreet breakfast and lunch program.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) plans to close Parkview School and move its students to Delta Secondary School for two years, while Parkview and neighbouring King George School (already closed) are demolished and a new high school is built in their place.

When construction is complete in two years, Delta and Sir John A MacDonald Secondary Schools will close and their students will move to the new high school. The dedicated vocational program currently offered at Parkview will be available within the new school.

Meanwhile, the Board will also buy back the nearby Scott Park site (after having sold it to a developer just a few years ago), demolish the building and turn the site into a 165-spot parking lot for the new school.


View Parkview and Scott Park in a larger map

The Trustees voted to close Parkview as part of the North Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process - a process to consolidate the Board's properties based on projected student populations and the cost of maintaining older buildings.

The Board's original plan was to consolidate the three lower city schools in a combination school/recreation centre on the site of Scott Park. This would allow the Board to keep Parkview open until the new school was ready to open.

However, City Council decided last fall to back out of the partnership and the Board moved the site of the new school to the Parkview/King George footprint. That means Parkview needs to close right away instead of staying open until the new school is finished.

Flawed ARC Process

Underlying all of this is the basic fact that the ARC process is fundamentally flawed. The school closures are predicated on the Board's projection that the demand for high school student accommodation in the lower city will decline until it only needs one school instead of three.

There are several fundamental problems with this process.

The school funding formula is broken.

School board finances are based on the School Funding Formula set by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The Ministry pays school boards a set fee per student, and the Board must maintain its properties and equipment and pay salaries based solely on the number of students.

The funding formula has been problematic for school boards ever since the Harris Government implemented it in 1998 as part of its strategy to "create a crisis in education". It constrains boards from being able to dedicate necessary funds to special programs, regardless of a given board's specific needs.

School capital funding is a perverse incentive.

The Ontario Liberals have had over a decade to fix the funding formula, but the main change, other than increasing the money boards have to work with, has actually made the situation worse for old neighbourhood schools: the Ministry pays school boards to build new schools but not to renovate or maintain old schools.

This creates a huge perverse incentive for school boards to neglect maintenance of old properties until they become "prohibitive to repair", thus justifying closing them and building new schools in their place.

Facilities management decisions are based on unreliable data.

The provincial-standard facilities management tool that school boards use to determine maintenance and lifecycle costs is an application called ReCapp, which is known to use a flawed methodology that overinflates cost assessments and pushes school boards toward the closure of old schools.

The problems with ReCapp have been known for years but school boards must still use it, presumably on the assumption that a bad map is better than no map.

The board's student enrollment projections are also unreliable.

The Board estimates future enrollment based on previous years, which assumes that enrollment will continue to change in the same linear manner. This is misleading for at least three reasons:

First, student populations rise and fall cyclically as neighbourhood demographics turn over. Two decades ago, the Board very nearly closed Central School due to declining enrollment, but a last-minute deal saw the top floor rented out to a private company. The extra revenue allowed the Board to keep the school open until enrollment rose again, and the school is now full.

Second, the decision to close a neighbourhood school will itself have the effect of deterring families with children from wanting to live in that neighbourhood. Closing schools in response to expected declining enrollment is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Third, the trend all across North America is for people to move from far-flung suburbs back into urban neighbourhoods. To the extent that Hamilton makes itself appealing to younger people, it will also share in this demographic shift and the demand for schools in urban neighbourhoods will rebound.

Province Avoiding Blame

It is easy to place all the blame for neighbourhood-harming school closures on Trustees, but they are making their decisions in a policy context that makes bad decisions all but inevitable.

The same thing is happening in towns and cities all across the province, but so far the Ontario Government has not faced much criticism for this province-wide neighbourhood crisis they have helped manufacture.

That needs to change: the Ontario Liberals need to start feeling the heat from angry residents whose communities are being systematically stripped of civic resources due to the (presumably) unintended consequences of bad policy.

Activists in Hamilton should connect with their peers in Kingston and other cities to put more focus on what the Ontario Government can do to change the dynamics leading to school closures.

Trustees Failing to Lead

At the same time, it is profoundly frustrating to see our local Trustees double down on their harmful decisions and attempting to pacify angry constituents, instead of leading the charge to represent and reflect that anger to the Province. Their silence makes them complicit.

Hamilton's Trustees have gone so far as to allow ARC votes to take place in secret in a direct violation of our most basic democratic traditions in order to shield the people making decisions from accountability.

The newest member of the Board, Ward 5 Trustee Todd White, opposed the vote but has an uphill struggle to change the minds of his more incumbent colleagues about the importance of openness, transparency and legitimacy.

Our Trustees have long maintained an ignoble practice of subverting transparency and accountability by taking public business in camera inappropriately, suppressing the publication of important public documents and even making voting decisions at secret pre-meeting meetings.

This is substantially the same set of Trustees who actually voted for a communications policy that put the corporate interests of the Board ahead of their constituents, before being advised that such a policy would violate the Charter.

After the past three-plus years of Board fiascos, it's no wonder the upcoming Trustee elections are receiving more public attention than they have in years.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By HWDSB (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:21:56

Ryan, regarding your comment that "The Board estimates future enrollment based on previous years" you may be interested in the details below:

HWDSB enrolment projections are made up of two separate components that include the existing school community and students generated by new development. The existing community projections are developed by advancing students through the grades based on historical, by-grade retention rates. The retention rates are grade specific and capture any gains or losses in enrolment that a school may experience as students move from one grade to another. Retention rate methodology is a common practice in Ontario School Boards.

By applying historical student enrolment (by unit type) to municipally approved development forecasts, planning staff have the ability to project the number of students generated by new development. These two components combined make up the enrolment projections. Enrolment projections can be done for a variety of time frames. One year, five year or 10 year projections are typical time frames used by the Accommodation and Planning Division.

There are a number of school specific assumptions that are also captured in the projections. These assumptions can be related to specific programs, board policies that may affect enrolment numbers like out of catchment or new Ministry initiatives such as full-day kindergarten.

Projections are then cross-referenced against historical enrolment trends, population forecasts, Census data and live birth data in order to judge alignment of enrolment numbers against these sources.

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 13:37:25 in reply to Comment 97277

Who is answering in secret from the Board?

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By secret? (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 16:54:19 in reply to Comment 97287

Secret is a founding tenet of RTH despite gripes about it. not spam, R

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2014 at 13:23:38 in reply to Comment 97277

The solution is not to create an argument for the funding model. Just scrap it. All the math in the world cannot properly predict enrolment. Put a strong schools as community hubs model in place. Create partnerships with businesses like the insurance company that rented space in Central, so that we have a long list of people and businesses in our community ready to utilize these spaces. Then, when required, they are prepared and equipped to jump into those spaces to help us keep our community schools. I have talked to a few potential community partners and there is a desire there but they have expressed hurdles that make it difficult to create such partnerships. The business community wants us to have strong communities too. We can all build a model that will benefit us all - most importantly, our children and their future employees.

That is where we start right now. Learning about community partnerships and how we can improve that model.

Ryan and Robert say it all. Central. It's the most powerful argument we have.

I'll use Lawfield as another example. We went from a Catholic elementary school, K-5 school, 6-8 school with 5 classes for every grade all on one block, to one school I am not even sure is as big as the old Lawfield, many houses being built, and 4-6 detached (not even a porta pack), portables out back only a few years from Lawfield opening it's doors.

Or how about Cecil B. Sterling where I went to elementary school until grade 5. They had some 6-8 portables (the covered walkway is all that remains on Google earth of what once was), and we even had gym in two portables stuck together. Imagine dodge ball in a portable. For real. It was fun, but really? How did those enrolment projections work out for you?

The City could also help by promoting the needs of the communities around all of these schools, including the need for families that might help us better plan our schools. Where are the seniors voices? Where are those that for one reason or another, will not have children? It's their school as well.

This ARC processes has taught us a great deal which I am okay with. Only if however, we stop it now and allow the community to plan the future of our education ourselves.

Stand up education leaders. Tell the Ontario Board we say No. That is all there is to it. These our our schools. Our children. Our voices are screaming No! already. You Trustees, and you Director, voted by Trustees voted in by us, have a responsibility to us. A responsibility to carry our voice and not in a manner that portrays us as a loud few afraid of change, but an extremely large city, province, and country-wide collective of parent, teacher, and community voices who are not okay with the closures of not just their schools, but any community schools period.

Stop trying to sell us on something that has lost all accountability a long time ago.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2014-01-30 13:34:00

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 19:03:21 in reply to Comment 97286

Carmen's Banquet Centre 1520 Stone Church Road East Wednesday, 19 February 2014 3:30 - 5 p.m.

The Director, John Molloy, is answering questions regarding the vision of the Board's education system.

--

Mon Feb 24 2014 6:00 PM HWDSB Board Meeting City Hall - City Council Chambers, 71 Main St W, Hamilton ON L8P4Y5 Contact: Tracy McKillop Phone:9055275092 ext. 2261

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2014 at 08:08:20 in reply to Comment 97303

Great thanks for this Joshua. He'll be at Parkview answering to them along with Tim Simmons on the 11th.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted January 31, 2014 at 15:17:17 in reply to Comment 97312

Tim Simmons and Jessica Brennan should both be there, I would hope, to answer.

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By Deanna (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 14:06:08 in reply to Comment 97286

The new Lawfield was built to house 600 students and replace the old lawfield(6-8) and Vern Ames(Jk-gr5). The Board agreed to allow French Immersion to share the building. Lawfield also started allowing Out of catchment kids in grades JK-5 from nearby Richard Beasley to attend. This sent numbers to over 800 students. Once the cap was placed on out of catchment enrolement and the new Michelle Jean school was opened, Lawfield's Enrolment now sits between 600- 700. Richard Beasley's Enrolement saw a great surge when this out of catchment rule was put into place at Lawfield and Full Day Kindergarden started. I feel that kids are often going out of catchment to attend schools which put other schools at risk. This happens a great deal at the Secondary School levels as well. (ex. Westmount, Sherwood)

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2014 at 12:25:38 in reply to Comment 97277

Such a detailed process and yet the board continues to make bad predictions.

Where in your calculations do you take into account that the very presence of nice schools DRIVES development and the migration of parents to a community?

The best way to ensure your predictions about falling enrollment are correct is to close the school. Then the enrollment is guaranteed to fall to zero.

Stop destroying the city, please.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:35:51 in reply to Comment 97277

That's all well and good, but how accurate are the results you obtain from all this? Are you constantly assessing the accuracy of your data by comparing current enrollments to past projections? The Dalewood ARC asked to see the board's previous projections for that cluster so they could compare them to the enrollment levels at the time, in order to assess the board's predictive abilities. Suffice to say the results did not give the ARC much confidence in the board's projections for the cluster, and indeed the projections are off even just for the two years since the ARC.

Reciting your methodology does nothing to assure the public of the quality of the data on which you base your decisions, when we haven't seen any reasonable attempts on the part of the board to measure the accuracy of the results of said methodology, let alone any attempt to improve it based on past failures.

Comment edited by highwater on 2014-01-30 11:39:18

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:26:25 in reply to Comment 97277

Could you provide us your projections for Central school, the ones that justified closure, and then provide us the actual enrollment numbers for those years?

I just want to see how reliable your projections can be.

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