Recommendations to the Premier of Ontario and the Minister of Education, March 2013, from Peterborough Needs PCVS
In order to ensure that the goals and objectives of the Ministry of Education (MEDU) are followed and respected, we recommend that the MEDU Accommodation Review Guideline (“the Guideline”) be enacted as a regulation, such that it is binding on school boards.
The MEDU should give serious consideration to strengthening the Guideline and to clarifying school board and ARC responsibilities. The role of the Accommodation Review Committee should be specified in greater detail. It is not sufficient that an ARC provide opportunities for public input. In addition, an ARC should:
- ensure that all relevant information is available for public review from the outset of the process
- weigh evidence in order to address discrepancies in matter of fact and/or interpretation
- consider all relevant regulations and policies (provincial, municipal, board, etc.)
- conduct working meetings in order to enhance dialogue among ARC members and between school communities
- ensure that all reasonable options have been explored, including community partnerships, and work to develop creative solutions that maximize community benefits and minimize costs
- issue a formal public report to the Board that summarizes and addresses all issues concerning school closing options, and makes appropriate recommendations.
The ARC Guideline should require that an ARC committee is independent from the board, so that the committee and its chair are free to fulfil their mandate and responsibilities without board interference. The committee must have adequate time to complete its tasks. Extensions must be granted at the call of the chair if the work of the committee cannot be completed to the required standard within the time allotted. If board employees are to sit on an ARC, the school board should be required to state publicly that these individuals are serving as private citizens and may speak freely and openly at all meetings.
An ARC and the school board should be active participants in dialogue with the community. In particular, the school board should be required to respond fully to issues, concerns, and questions of fact raised by community members, and should respond to good faith proposals in kind. Dialogue is essential to communication, and establishes opportunities for creative solutions.
Boards should be required to provide an ARC with an up-to-date Facilities Condition Index for every school under consideration. School closure decisions should not occur until such indices are available to and understood by ARCs and Trustees.
Boards should be required to provide an ARC with realistic estimates of the dollar costs of any school closing and transition program, and the cost saving of such closure. Boards should also be required to publish, within six months of a school closing, the actual cost savings and transition costs.
To help ensure long-term planning and transparency, scenarios created for decision-making purposes should include projections for school occupancy over at least a 10- or 15-year time frame. The MEDU should prescribe the rules for making enrolment projections, and these projections should be subject to review where their accuracy is questioned.
A clear provincial policy framework is needed to establish the context within which school closing decisions will be made. This policy framework should address school siting issues such as the role of schools in strengthening downtown neighbourhoods, and the maximization of walking and cycling to school. The policy framework should also identify indicators of both desirable student outcomes and school climate.
In particular, the MEDU should ensure that the Guideline is congruent with the Places to Grow Act. The Guideline should specifically require boards to consider the impact of a school closure on a designated Urban Growth Centre and to consult publicly with the municipality regarding this impact. It would be immensely helpful to boards and communities if the Ministers of Education and Municipal Affairs and Housing issued jointly a clarification regarding the implications of the Places to Grow legislation for accommodation reviews.
The MEDU should ensure that existing space in publicly funded schools is used in the most efficient and financially responsible ways. To that end, the Ministry should require that a school board co-operate with other boards in sharing space. If a board undertakes an Accommodation Review, and determines it must close all or part of a school, it should offer space to the other boards. The other Boards should be required to use such space rather than building additions to existing buildings or new schools. All board communications regarding space sharing must be made public.
School boards and communities need better research-based information about the contentious issue of optimal school size. Are larger schools (over 1000 students) preferable to mid-sized schools from the point of view of programming, school atmosphere and inclusiveness, administrative overheads, and community benefits? Or is there evidence that mid-sized schools have certain advantages, including the provision of specialized programming and a distinctive school culture in a community where there is more than one school option? It would be helpful to boards, ARCs, and communities if the Ministry commissioned research on this topic through an open peer reviewed process and made the results available.
The MEDU should ensure that Boards are held to a duty of fairness in any school closure process, and that such duty is reflected in its guidelines or legislation. In particular, a duty of fairness must apply whenever there is a fundamental change contemplated to a school affecting its pupils or staff, including circumstances in which the change is described as “re-purposing” rather than school closure. “School closure” should be defined in the Education Act.
The Administrative Review guideline currently allows citizens to appeal based solely on whether a board followed its own policy and process. Citizens should be able to appeal when a board fails to follow the Ministry Guideline, strengthened in the ways we have recommended. The Administrative Review Facilitator should have binding authority to require Boards to comply with the requirements outlined in the Guideline. This could save both applicants and school boards the costs of legal action.
The Administrative Review process should be conducted in a timely way. Citizen groups should not have to wait for months to have a review approved and concluded.
The Ministry should require Boards to provide clear public notice at least 60 days in advance of any decision involving a fundamental change to a school or a school closing. Such notice should include disclosure of staff recommendations. This would allow a reasonable opportunity for public input, notwithstanding that an ARC may have been convened.
Trustees should be accountable to the citizens who are affected by their decisions. To that end, the government should consider reducing the geographic area of school boards. In light of the current composition of Boards where a community may have only minimal representation on the Board, decisions on school repurposing and closing should require more than a simple majority of Trustees.
- In the 2012 judgment re: Peterborough Needs PCVS vs. the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB, the Divisional Court of Ontario judges wrote: “The case law is clear that when closing a school a school board need not follow these (Accommodation Review) Guidelines … The MEDU Guideline is not to be scrutinized in the same way as a legislative enactment would be … The issue is whether the process is procedurally unfair.” The case law is clear that the MEDU Guideline does not have the force of law. For the Guideline to be enforceable, it would have to be included in legislation (statute or regulation). Otherwise, school boards can essentially disregard the Guideline, notwithstanding its current use of language such as “school boards are required to … ” and “boards must.”
- References to school “closings” in this document are intended to include “repurposing,” where a significant portion of the school population and/or program is affected by the decision.
- The Education Act establishes that the Minister of Education has the sole authority to approve the funding for the building of new schools. However, as we have seen in the case of the 2011 Accommodation Review in the City of Peterborough, Boards can close or re-purpose schools that are in good condition and maintain schools that require significant capital investment or replacement.
- In the June 2012 judicial review, Peterborough Needs PCVS and the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, the Board argued that it was not “closing” PCVS but simply “re-purposing” it (although all existing programmes and students would be moved from the school) and consequently they did not owe the duty of procedural fairness. The judges agreed with the Board and ruled that “in fact and in law this is not a school closure. The duty of fairness therefore does not apply to the decision of the Board.”
- In the Peterborough Accommodation Review, citizens applied to the Ministry for an Accommodation Review in October 2011. The Minister did not release the Facilitator’s report until March 23, 2012, almost five full months after the request for review was initiated.