Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stop Digging

Despite a growing population in Edmonton, dozens of public schools were closed during the past decade, usually over the vehement objections of students, parents and community members. In October 2010 this became an election issue, and for the first time average voters were interested in trustee candidates. Several incumbent trustees who consistently voted to close schools did not run again, and several new candidates who campaigned at least in part against indiscriminate school closure were elected. The one candidate whose sole platform was no school closure, Sarah Hoffman, received more votes than any city councillor in 2010 and more votes than any school trustee, ever. The following month her motion was approved by the board of trustees:
That the Board impose a renewable two year moratorium on school closures, and that during this time the board seek to further understand the issues and impacts surrounding school closures. During the moratorium, the board will also identify a number of ways to support schools instead of close them.
Last week the Edmonton Journal published an editorial more or less advocating for more school closures and urban sprawl. You can view the original, uninterrupted version here, but it's copied verbatim below in blue text, with just a few of my comments interspersed:

Public board trustees must remove their blinders on school closures

I can't even get past the title. The school closure moratorium was approved in order to "further understand the issues and impacts surrounding school closures." This is the exact opposite of putting on blinders.

Two years ago, trustees of Edmonton’s public-school system seemed to forget that schools exist for children, and not the other way around.

They also seemed to forget that they are responsible for education, not urban planning; that children should not be shortchanged by the legitimate housing choices of their parents; and that postponing a tough decision rarely makes it more popular or less painful when the day of reckoning comes. 

The board of trustees' role is to oversee the school district's superintendent and administration, to ensure its mission and values are upheld, and to provide some vision for the future. The law regarding how all this is managed is in the School Act. The law obviously includes education but also regulations on the bricks and mortar of school buildings. This is probably why it's not called the Education Act. Education is the largest and most important part of what a school board does, but not its only responsibility.

Why should trustees' activities be so narrowly defined, anyway? The Journal seems to want school boards strictly limited to making sure students do well on their provincial achievement tests. What about the no junk food policy adopted in 2007? In promoting healthy choices in school vending machines and cafeterias, did trustees overstep their authority? How about in 2011 when they voted in a policy to provide a welcoming environment for gay and lesbian students and employees, and protect them from discrimination? (As a matter of record the only trustee to oppose this motion was Catherine Ripley, who also voted against the school closure moratorium.)  This board of trustees has chosen to set the bar a little higher for themselves. In fact, the mission of the public school board reaches well beyond education by looking at the whole child and includes families and communities as partners. If the school board thinks it is relevant to look at growth patterns or demographics in how they close schools, they should be applauded for considering the bigger picture. Schools do not exist in a civic vacuum.

The use of the phrase "tough decision" also appeared in a Journal editorial in April 2010 (no longer online) following the last barrage of school closings. The inference is that these painful choices are necessary, and anyone who disagrees with the decision to close a school must be afraid to do the right thing. It's tough because there is strong and passionate opposition, due to the fact that the reasoning, methodology and public consultation surrounding school closures is profoundly flawed. If the process actually functioned properly, then citizens would partner with school officials to create solutions that did not always have the word "closure" in them. Then we would not have nearly as many of these alleged tough calls to make. Imagine going to a doctor whose response to every type of malady is to make the tough decision to amputate your right arm. A premature, uninformed, wrong and/or unnecessarily painful decision is not the same thing as a courageous one.

"Legitimate housing choices" in this context refers to families moving to the suburbs; I don't think we're talking about the legitimate choice to live in an inner-city neighbourhood here. The editorial assumes an inevitability to current growth patterns. But in fact many older neighbourhoods are currently in various stages of revitalization, as more and more people are choosing to live in these mature areas. When any city grows to a size where commuting time becomes an important factor in where you choose to live, central communities become desirable alternatives to suburbs and exurbs. Most grown-up cities enable families to live right in the core by zoning appropriately, providing a little green space and, of course, a school. Suburban living will likely always be an option for Edmonton, but the alternatives need to be available as well. Urban sprawl is neither inevitable nor unstoppable: it is a function of the attitudes and politics of the day.

At the end of November, a bit more than 10 months before they must face re-election, Edmonton Public Schools’ elected representatives will face these hard truths when their ill-advised moratorium on school closures comes to an end.

When there is a good possibility that the current process is causing real harm, it makes a lot of sense to stop doing it in order to prevent further damage. It reminds me of the Will Rogers quote: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." It is theoretically possible that by not rushing ahead to close more schools during this temporary pause for analysis and discussion, we are somehow making things worse. After two years there is no evidence that is remotely true. This moratorium was not ill-advised, it was overdue.

Their frustration with a trend toward urban sprawl was and remains understandable. They are caught between a provincial government that controls the purse strings but doesn’t want the blame for classroom shortages, a city hall that doesn’t want potential property taxes to end up in the new suburbs allowed by outlying municipalities, and parents whose dream of a single-family home in a neighbourhood full of other child-rearing families can only be achieved on the city’s periphery. 

The first part of this paragraph is actually an excellent summary of the dysfunction between the three levels of government. The point about the tax base crossing city limits is very valid and deserves more attention. When the Detroit school system was closing literally hundreds of schools a few years ago, their strategy was to "defend the borders," meaning they were trying to contain the exodus from of the city by supporting schools near Detroit's city limits. The inner city schools were the casualties, as they always seem to be.

The last part about families is complete garbage. The Journal may think families can and will only ever live in the suburbs. This Halloween they should walk around some of the non-peripheral communities they have already written off and see first-hand just how many children live there. More than they think, and more than there used to be. Many families believe walking to school and biking to the park are better options than the chauffeured-minivan lifestyle.

Certainly the frustration of parents who choose to live in mature neighbourhoods near schools with low enrolments is something any fair-minded taxpayer should sympathize with. Through no fault of their own, they live with insecurity for their children and for their beloved deep-rooted communities — communities that have more character and sense of identity on a single street corner than new subdivisions have in all their terraces, trails and wynds combined.

Furthermore, schools with small enrolments are often located in poorer neighbourhoods where parents don’t have the resources to do the drive to school so common in suburbs. And such schools often play vital after-hours roles as well for both adults and youth.

Absolutely: closing McCauley, Eastwood, Parkdale and Spruce Avenue (elementary program only) schools in 2010 affected central neighbourhoods that have significantly lower average household incomes. These are the communities that are most in need. The children in these areas now have a much harder and steeper path to the same education and other school supports that suburban children have been granted.

At least the role of the school is rightly recognized here as more than just a place for education, and benefits more than just children. Especially so in neighbourhoods with higher immigrant family populations. The school is the heart of the community.

But none of this changes the fact that small schools often lack the enriching optional programs that schools with larger enrolments can afford. Further, none of this justifies putting budgetary priority on modernizing old facilities in areas with multiple schools when the only thing requiring maintenance on a lot of suburban school real estate is grass.

Now we've gone completely off the rails. The argument that larger schools produce better outcomes is false and there is a mountain of research on the academic benefits of small schools. In additional to many other social, environmental and health benefits, small schools generally provide students as good an education as large schools if not better. The number of options has little to do with a successful outcome. Anecdotally, most families at Ritchie junior high (closed in 2008) were happy with the education provided there even though the school had much fewer optional programs.

The idea that maintaining schools is somehow more expensive than building new ones is baffling. It is outright dishonest to suggest that the cost difference is on the scale of a major building renovation compared to mowing a lawn; it's not cheaper when you include the cost of building the new school. But the money for new schools is budgeted completely separately from maintenance funding, and this arbitrary political configuration can prejudice how we think. Ultimately the money all comes from the same place: taxpayers. We allow provincial politicians be the sole authority to locate and build new schools, and it makes no sense. Political dynasties like the Alberta PCs are likely to favour their voting base - wealthy suburbanites - while ignoring the more left-leaning voters who live in the more urban areas. If you think this is cynical, have a look at the timing of when new schools are announced; it strongly correlates with the period leading up to an election.

As I understand it, maintenance funding happens in two ways. The first is the day-to-day maintenance such as replacing light bulbs or a new coat of paint, plus smaller repairs; this money is under the control of the school board. But if the maintenance becomes big enough, like a new heating system, it's now considered "Plant Operation and Maintenance" which is doled out by the province once again, but from a different pot of money that has nothing to do with the new school funds. School boards must submit a prioritized list of PO&M projects each year, then the Alberta government decides which, if any, it will pay for. Some modernizations linger on this list forever. School boards must come to their provincial masters begging for money every year. The whole business is a governmental shell game where those at the top of the pecking order serve their own interests first. This must be more wasteful and costly than a system that manages school openings and closings, major repairs and modernizations, and day to day operations as a coordinated, holistic system.

The biggest myth is that we cannot afford low-enrolment schools. Once again, we have impressive academic research that says small schools in fact do not cost more than big ones. If you dare to look long-term - at high school completion rates, future incomes and tax revenues of students from small and large schools - as some studies have, then on average small schools cost less overall. This is important: on a per-graduate basis, small schools are more cost-effective than large schools.

One of the perennial problems with the school-closure debate — a tense argument to be found in one form or another in growing cities across Canada — is that people tend to see a linkage between school closures and the need to build new schools closer to where most of today’s young families live.

In the 1990s, finance ministers in Alberta aggravated this picture of competing needs when they insisted that school boards improve the occupancy rate of their classroom inventory before receiving cash for new construction.

It is true that there is no direct link between schools closing and opening. They are budgeted for independently, and decided upon by different elected officials at different levels. However, there is some causality, in that opening new schools adds to the total capacity of a school district. In Alberta, the utilization rate (number of students divided by the total capacity of the school, roughly) is a key statistic used for allocating funds. School boards are always trying to increase their utilization rate. Adding new schools makes the overall utilization rate drop. None of this even touches on the distortions of how school capacity is calculated.

As Edmonton sprawls, there are many new neighbourhoods that did not exist a few years ago. These neighbourhoods are indeed full of young families. If there is no school in a new development when families move in, are residents justified in demanding a school be built? On the other hand, when families choose a mature, walkable neighbourhood because a school already exists nearby, is it fair to them to close the school and force these children to be transported outside their communities? Do suburban homeowners rights trump those of urban residents?

The perception that schools are a zero-sum game persists, and nobody seems to be going out of their way to define it otherwise. It is the politics of distraction: aligning urban vs. suburban, poor vs. rich, left vs. right. If we are busy sniping at each other about which part of town deserves a school, then we're not paying much attention to the big picture of the entire dubious process and its false assumptions, the research that suggests we're heading in the wrong direction, or the impacts the city as a whole.

Instead, the focus ought to be on making sure all children get the quality of education that is possible only in schools where high enrolment brings lots of per-student funding that can be spent on improved programming in core and optional subjects.

Again: the premise that quality education is only possible in large schools is false. The assumption that bigger is better is simply not true when it comes to schools. Any school, large or small, can deliver a good education to all of its students with enough commitment and leadership. We need to get past the myth that large schools always produce better educational outcomes. They don't.

Fortunately, Edmonton Public Schools trustees now seem to recognize this in their new list of factors to be considered when determining a school’s fate, such as the issue of limited programming and availability of space in nearby schools.

These new factors have always been part of the equation. I could go on for pages about the problems with the existing school closure process as practiced by EPSB (and I just may do that if the Journal comes out with another editorial like this one). To simplify: the school board administration identifies which schools have low utilization rates as potential closure candidates, and includes factors such as the physical condition of the building, enrolment within neighbourhood and catchment areas, available space in nearby schools, demographic projections, transportation alternatives, and whatever else they feel will build a case against the school.

The problem is that most of these criteria are faulty from the start, or else have little logical connection with a sound rationale to close a school. It seems it is only the utilization rate that matters anyway. If you look back through the admin reports recommending closure through the years, it is very much a boilerplate document with little differentiation of each school's unique qualities and circumstances. Hopefully during this moratorium Edmonton Public will take a fresh look at why they would consider closing a school, and come up with a more rigorous process with meaningful criteria.

The board also seems to have realized it would be better to focus energies on lobbying city and provincial authorities for more school-friendly policies, rather than on applying unilateral pressure with tactics such as moratoria. 

Clearly, the city understands the problem and the importance of schools for more than education in the life of a community. For example, in its report Elevate, the mayor’s task force on community sustainability realized the value of attracting young families to older neighbourhoods. 

I agree completely: schools are more than curriculum-delivery buildings, and they have a crucial role to play in reinvesting in our existing mature communities. So why is the rest of this editorial critical of EPSB trustees for "urban planning", and for temporarily calling a halt to what may very well be irreversible damage? A timeout here is needed and entirely rational, and should not be characterized as a pressure tactic.

Certainly having the decision-making of school siting and operations arbitrarily divided between three separate governments is a complicated mess we have inherited. Credit goes to EPSB trustees such as Dave Colburn for initiating dialogue between these three levels, and to Mayor Mandel for acknowledging the role of schools in Edmonton's development (and redevelopment). Alberta MLAs show up for some of these discussions, but have yet to show any meaningful collaboration. 

If the moratorium did no more than offer false hope to parents that changing demographics and the trend to closures could be halted, perhaps it did contribute a little to changing attitudes at city hall.

Wow - what a fatalistic thing to say. Maybe we should just get it over with and bulldoze all residential neighbourhoods and schools between the Whitemud and Yellowhead highways since suburban sprawl is inevitable. Demographics patterns are changing a little, but not in the backwards-looking way the Journal meant; some families are choosing to live in mature, revitalized, walkable, sustainable communities. And what is commonplace in other cities is shockingly novel for Edmonton: living without a car. Going carless works in older, more compact neighbourhoods, but good luck in one of our new communities. Even if a suburb has a school, chances are because of low density it will be too far to walk to and students will arrive by car or bus anyway. Not only do we have urban sprawl, we have poorly-planned, expensive sprawl.

Attitudes are slowly changing at city hall and at the public school board. The editorial board at the Journal, by repackaging yesterday's values and assumptions as the tunnel-vision of our future, is shovelling more of the same thing that got us here, deeper and deeper. Fortunately, increasing numbers of Edmontonians have already taken their own blinders off and are starting to look around at more effective and more sustainable alternatives.

References and Further Reading

Remember that "mountain of research"? Here is the tip of the iceberg: a collection of academic papers, websites and news articles on the main themes discussed above.

School Closure

Small Schools

Schools and City Planning

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