Thursday, June 14, 2012

My presentation to Ontario Education Critic June 12

Received in person by The PC Education Critic, Lisa MacLeod. MPP Nepean-Carlton accompanied by Jeff Yurek, MPP Elgin-Middlesex-London


I am Brock Vodden, a retired educator, and currently a municipal councillor for North Huron representing the Blyth Ward. I, along with others, have been working hard for almost 4 years to try to make the Avon Maitland District School Board recognize its responsibility to the community in which its schools are located.

I have been involved with many aspects of education throughout my entire career. A teacher in elementary and secondary schools, Superintendent of Schools, College administrator, and from 1976 to retirement, a self-employed corporate training and development specialist.

 I have only recently become aware of the question of school board accountability. Until the past 10 or so we have taken as a given that the trustees are public-minded citizens who are looking after the education needs of our children within the context of our communities. The connection of school to community was not something that we ever felt the need to discuss.

The convergence was always assumed.

In my in-depth studies of education, I came to realize that one of the truly outstanding strengths of the Ontario education system is the tight bonding we have between school and community – especially for children in the early years.

Recently, this matter has become a very serious matter for my community and for many communities across the province subject to a cluster of pivotal questions. There has been a major change that quietly took place. Even at the last municipal elections most people were just beginning to become aware of these emerging questions:

  • ·       What is the nature of the relationship between the school board and the community?
  • ·       Does the school board represent the people who elect them?
  • ·       What is the nature of the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the school board?
  • ·       What obligation, if any, does a school board have to ensure that its decisions support the sustainability of the community, and that those decisions are not in conflict with the plans and the needs of the community at large?
  • ·       If such a conflict were to develop between a board and a community, what mechanisms are there to resolve the conflict?

These are very serious questions, and all across Ontario we find examples of school board-community conflicts based on these questions, and most of these battles are being resolved at the expense of the community. I believe that when the community loses the fight, the education system suffers as well. They are lose-lose situations.

Battles are being joined almost every time the term “Accommodation Review” is introduced.

I am in touch with many communities across Ontario going through similar conflicts.  My community of Blyth in Huron County seems to be fairly typical of these troubles
Let me tell you a bit about Blyth in case you are not familiar with it:

We have a small but vibrant community with many remarkable assets. Population is less than 1,000. 
Our Blyth Festival Theatre thriving since 1975.(30,000 patrons each summer) Our Threshers’ Reunion  in its 51st  year. (13,000 visitors for one weekend each September). 
We have the largest serviced event campground in Ontario (800 serviced sites and 200 un-serviced.). 
Our latest achievement: the opening of our Emergency Services Training Centre which will provide training for 7,000 or 8,000 emergency personnel each year from all across Ontario and beyond.

Through great local investment we have developed and retained a very attractive main street with plans which will make this one of the most distinctive communities you ever passed through. But you might feel you just have to stop for a second look.

Unfortunately, I have to report that all of this is threatened by our school board.

They are closing our only school, Blyth Public School, in the next two weeks. This closure is already producing serious side-effects which will only multiply. It will affect our businesses, our general economy, our property values. This condition will discourage investment in our community. We will not be able to attract or retain young families. We will over time lose volunteers who play such an important part in all of our signature events as well as our volunteer fire department. We stand to lose retail businesses which in turn will cause us to lose our bank and perhaps our post office.

Our pool of volunteers, which is essential to so many of our endeavours, will be depleted over the years. Some facilities and events will not be sustainable for lack of volunteer support. The school board is doing all this to us with no thought or concern for the downstream effects.

A senior administrator with the Avon Maitland DSB is quoted as saying that the community is not the concern of the school board. He said that the only concern of the school board is the children and the schools. If the closure causes difficulties for the community, the community will have to find the solutions.

The school board has done nothing to dispel that opinion.

It is not just Blyth that is facing this bleak future. There are 90 other communities under the same type of shadow across the province at the moment. And many have already gone through the pain and suffering.
The Blyth community did everything it possible could to challenge this decision, but all has been of no avail.

·       The Blyth members on the ARC committee petitioned the Minister for an Administrative Review of the board’s process. They got their review, but the process was rigged by the Ministry.

  • ·       Objections to re-zoning application for the site of the new school
  • ·       Letters to the Board
  • ·       A petition delivered on March 5 to the Ontario Legislature against the closing of our school with the support of our MPP, Lisa Thompson. 631 signatures were on that petition.
  • ·       We filed a complaint with the Ontario Ombudsman’s office about the negligence in the Ministry of Education in not enforcing the terms of the ARC Guidelines
  • ·       We filed a complaint with the Auditor General Ontario regarding the waste of funds in conducting consultative ARC meetings when the decisions had already been made as to the school closures, and for the wasted millions of dollars to build a new school which has no educational justification.

Members of the Blyth community have worked hard for four years to prevent this arbitrary decision from being implemented. 

Avon Maitland DSB has resorted to producing falsified reports about what they have done in Blyth, about the ARC meetings, about what the people of Blyth said and did. Just as an example, the official word from their Director of Communications and the chairperson is that every ARC meeting was advertised in the local paper. In fact, only the second meeting was advertised. 

That is just one of many such missteps. 

The chairperson wrote to me pointing out that the ministry’s facilitator judged the board’s conduct of the ARC to be exemplary. The facilitator made no such judgment. She said that the board’s policy was exemplary – not their implementation of it.

That seems like a small slip of the tongue, but it is typical of the misinformation that comes from the highest levels in the board.

The history of our own school is being written by board staff replete with untrue statements.

The school board does not represent us. It is not clear to me what their real motivations are. At first, we were led to believe that all these efforts were to deal with declining enrolment: too many schools, not enough children.  But deciding to build a new 24 room elementary school does not seem a logical remedy for declining enrollment.

I happen to believe that rogue boards like AMDSB are merely using the declining enrolment obsession as an excuse to do many things that have been dreamed up in back rooms in years past.

In any case, it is clear that many school boards across this province do not see themselves as being accountable to their respective communities. The Ministry is complicit in this anti-democratic trend since they have done nothing to dispel that impression and have done much to project a false impression that the people are being listened to.

Research on School Consolidation in both Canada and the United States shows that consolidation can be a good thing in some cases, but only in very specific circumstances.

It can be effective in terms of achieving greater efficiencies and improved educational quality but only when careful, objective research is done on the specific community and equally careful design of the precise solution to be implemented.  The nature of the consolidation must be tailor-made for the specific situation.

On the other hand the research shows that system-wide consolidation programs do not work. Saving money and improving quality are not guaranteed. Success in one aspect may be accompanied by failure in the other, or both results might be negative.

Also the research is very clear that big schools are not better than small schools just because they are bigger.

This entire consolidation campaign throughout Ontario is supported by no research and offers no advice on alternative strategies that boards may use. There is so much wrong with this entire process, it is little wonder that the Ontario educations system has to rely on Draconian measures to enforce such a baseless and destructive policy.

The damage being done to small rural communities is beyond measure but it is probably in the billions of dollars. It is another aspect of the government’s attack on rural Ontario.


Legislative changes:

The absolute right of school boards to close or open schools without offering the right of appeal must be removed.
School boards must be subject to the principles of sound municipal planning in addition to sound educational planning and must be required to face objections and appeals.
The traditional link between the community and education must be restored  throughout Ontario so that no community can be deprived of a local school except under very specific conditions, making retention of a local school completely impractical.
We must find a way to balance cost efficiencies and ensuring that our education is relevant to each community.
School boards have become obsessed with the need to have all kinds of specialists in the board offices.
This is one of the reasons that the board has notified five schools in our county that they cannot afford to operate their schools any more.
It is time to recognize that the most critical need for expertise lies in the teaching staff. The relationship between the teacher and the students is the most critical part of the education process. Many teachers tell me that there is so much paper work and so many demands to continually adopt new fancy methodologies that they barely have time to do any teaching.
The board specialists need something to do so they constantly demand reports from the teachers and seek to prove their worth by working on the implementation of the latest instructional fad – needed or not!

I believe that the Ontario Ombudsman must be given the right to investigate the activities of the MUSH group: Municipalities, Universities, Schools and Hospitals.

One mayor mentioned to me that I should be careful what I ask for since if the OO looks into school affairs he will also be able to investigate my activity as a councillor. Well, I happen to believe that all of these public organizations need to be subject to review. There are many injustices that are never challenged because the individual or the groups do not have the resources to conduct the review themselves.


The Ministry of Education has facilitated this process that enables school boards to do pretty much whatever they decide to do. The activities in question very often have little or nothing to do with declining enrollment. This arrangement leaves the community with no way to turn.

In my view, school boards are accountable to the Ministry of Education these days.

The school boards, when questioned about their arbitrary decisions either refuse to answer our questions or they give false information. If the community requests an administrative review from the Ministry, to pass judgment on the board’s ARC process which they know was rigged, they do not get an objective analysis. The facilitators that conduct the reviews invariably find the board’s actions to be satisfactory. They point out a few areas that the board might improve the next time they have an ARC process, but they always point out that they do not feel that these little errors had a material effect on the board’s decision. Of course they didn’t! The decision was made before the ARC even began.

The only result of the admin review is that it provides the board and the ministry with documents which whitewash the entire process of the board, and which contradict all of the facts known by the people who were there and know the truth about what was actually said and done.

It appears that the Ministry of Education has a goal of eliminating a certain number of schools. They don't seem to care which schools are closed, or what the effects are on their communities. To them it is just a matter of numbers. We often refer to this as management by spreadsheet. It is happening in both urban and rural settings, but the rural areas are hardest hit.

We are looking for support in the Ontario legislature. Our school board will not even talk to us or listen to us.

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