Meeting Notes - November 15, 2016

Tonight we discussed administration’s Long Term Accommodation Plan (for empty student spaces) which addressed my motion in May and received unanimous support from trustees:

That administration have 6 months to develop a board-wide strategic plan for accommodations that includes community partners, in particular but not limited to, municipal governments.

The report presented by administration is a good overview of where our student spaces are in every school in the entire board, organized by family of schools aka local community areas with elementary schools that feed each secondary school. It also contains the FCI and renewal cost for every school in the system. I believe this is the first time we have released information like this to the community and I think that is very positive. Here is a link to the report

For background, I made the motion for a strategic plan for accommodations in response to a recommendation from administration in May that we conduct an accommodation review in the city core. The recommendation did not make it to the floor.

GECDSB does have 3 board-wide pressures including declining enrollment, empty student spaces, and aging infrastructure which are currently affecting our ability to balance our budget. Trustees are being warned that eventually these conditions will impede our ability to provide the programming opportunities this community deserves. However, these problems did not happen overnight and they do not exist in the core specifically - nor mostly. Moreover, since May, administration was able to find significant savings; rather than a projected $1.5 million deficit for 2015-16 year-end, we had an approximately $1 million surplus.

I felt we needed a strategic, community-minded solution rather than a neighbourhood by neighbourhood solution that seems to have little basis in values and principles, just numbers. The reality is that when schools are closed, people leave those neighbourhoods. And when people leave neighbourhoods, schools close. People need a reason to be there. In the spring of this year, I personally provided all trustees copies of United Way’s “Taking Back our Neighbourhoods” report which explains the concept of “poverty of place”. Neighbourhoods with high transiency and low income tend to suffer inequity in a variety of ways. I think the report is an important read for anyone who is in a position to make decisions about the community. 

Trustees also wanted to approach the problem differently. We wanted to explore other avenues before entertaining an accommodation review. I have said and continue to say that I believe school closures should be a last resort rather than our go-to solution. I believe that we need to consider ourselves a community service and we need to make decisions through that lens.

I have therefore been advocating for partnerships with community agencies that would not only reduce the empty student spaces in our schools, but bring services into a neighbourhood or community where they don’t already exist, and possibly provide opportunities for enhanced programming for our students, staff, and the community partner. The Ministry has indicated that community hubs are a priority area. Administration had explained one of the challenges was that the board would need to prepare space for community partners which may involve spending on construction. In October, we received notice from the Ministry that GECDSB would receive $856,000 to retrofit school space for community partners. I think this money is a “gift” that could not have come at a better time. We have to spend it by the end of the 2017-18 school year or we lose it. I do not want to see that happen but we have not had success yet in this area and we will continue to try. I have also suggested another possibility might be to move space we are renting for community programming into schools, such as the Newcomer Centre on Ouellette Ave.

I come from a community-based work background and I understand the value of working together to achieve community-level goals. I found the collaborative approach of the Toronto District School Board and the City of Toronto compelling; I believe we need to partner with municipalities in our infrastructure planning and ask how we can be a part of some of the great things happening: unemployment is decreasing, housing prices are increasing, and there are Community Improvement Plans being implemented by the City of Windsor. Moreover, Windsor has welcomed hundreds of Syrian refugees due to the mandate of the federal government. They are mostly settling in the core, near Westview Freedom Academy, and Northwood Public School. Administration indicated that they did meet with planning departments in every municipality including the city to get a sense of housing developments that are happening or planned. This information is included in the report in the summary pages for each family of schools and is very helpful. In addition, individual trustees have been working with those councillors who see the value of collaborating.

Administration was also asked to consider our French Immersion programming which seems to be very popular. The report shows we have about 4400 students in French Immersion across our board in single-track and dual-track schools. I think there is more opportunity for dual tracking in our board and before we consider closing neighbourhood schools which have many students attending single-track FI schools, we need to consider dual-tracking. I think in addition to reducing the impact of students leaving neighbourhood schools to attend FI, if we offer more dual tracking of FI we can also make the program available to more students. This will require study and planning.

Finally, I wonder if there is an opportunity for special programming – other than French Immersion. For example, is there an opportunity to develop a school with specialized coding and robotics programming? We know that robotics is very popular among students in our board and that it helps with critical thinking, math, socio-emotional development, and logic. The Ministry has recently announced that they will be providing new supports for coding and computational skills in Ontario schools. We will need to understand more about what this involves.

Administration is expected to bring forward recommendations concerning accommodations to the December 13 meeting which trustees will have the choice to put on the floor and vote on. I will post the recommendations as soon as they are available. I think the report presented on November 15 does suggest some possible recommendations administration may bring forward: from a family of schools perspective, the recommendations would likely focus on areas that have highest need in terms of FCI, the highest renewal cost, and the highest number of empty student spaces. From a board-wide perspective, it is clear that French Immersion is highly desirable and that there are a variety of ways to offer it, including dual-track or single-track schools. Any recommendations that are brought forward should consider the impact of French Immersion. 

Our next meeting is on December 6. This is the Organizational Meeting in which trustees select the Chair and Vice Chair of the board and of the Standing Committees including Education and Operations & Finance. Wish me luck as I am going for Chair of the Education Committee having been Vice Chair for the last couple of years. As always, the public are invited to attend this meeting at 7pm at the board office. Hope to see you there!

Jessica

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Jessica Sartori