Commentary

Erroneous Data, Poor Communication Taint School Closure Recommendation

Given that the rationale for this ARC was predicated on an error, and given staff's lack of forthrightness in revealing this error and its implications on the wrongful PTR designation, the only fair and just outcome for this ARC is status quo.

By Mary Louise Pigott
Published April 16, 2012

Tonight, at the HWDSB's Committee of the Whole meeting beginning at 6:30 PM, the Board of Trustees will vote on the future of the three schools in the Dalewood Accommodation Review area: Prince Philip, George R. Allan, and Dalewood.

Board staff are recommending [PDF] the closure of Prince Philip School and the busing of its students to George R. Allan, while the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) is recommending [PDF] to maintain the status quo.

The Dalewood ARC process began over a year ago. Numerous issues around process and rationale have arisen over the course of this ARC that will impact the many future ARCs the board has planned.

The Dalewood ARC has already had an impact on the current South ARC, as several delegations to the South ARC Special Hearing made reference to some of the issues stemming from our ARC, particularly the Board's misuse of ReCapp data for building their cases for school closures.

The issues of closing walkable schools and relying on busing in urban areas have also loomed large - particularly in a post Drummond Report era where families in urban areas may be forced to pay user fees to bus their children, and the inherent unfairness of a system that allows boards to inflate the savings of their proposals through the misuse of ReCapp, without having to account for the costs of the resulting busing as it is covered directly by the province.

Facilities Condition Index Error

However, another issue has taken on an overriding importance in the last two weeks. It was discovered during the course of the ARC that an error in the Facilities Condition Index (FCI) data in 2003 had wrongfully caused both Dalewood and Prince Philip to be placed on the province's Prohibitive to Repair (PTR) list.

In response [PDF] to a question from Trustee Peddle presented at a special Committee of the Whole meeting on April 3, staff admitted that if they had known about the PTR error before proposing this ARC to the trustees, they would not have put these schools into an ARC at this time.

Staff did, however, discover the error before the ARC process began, but for reasons unknown, chose to proceed anyway. Their stated reasons - the FCI data for the schools, and enrollment - have been cast into doubt by the evidence that emerged during the ARC.

The corrected FCI data was further distorted by the misuse of ReCapp. Our utilization rates are currently high despite being projected by the board to drop over time - though certainly not to a critical level, and not nearly to the degree of many other school clusters in the board's jurisdiction.

As well, evidence was presented that disproved many of the board's enrollment assumptions. Without FCI and enrollment as solid rationales for this ARC, we are left scratching our heads as to why the board was so determined to close a school in our area that they forged ahead despite the PTR error.

This is where the fun begins.

Missed Opportunities and Neglected Investments

As I mentioned, Dalewood and Prince Philip Schools were declared PTR in 2003. The community responded to this by forming the West Hamilton Schools Planning Committee to proactively deal with the threat to our schools that this represented. Needless to say, we had many questions about the validity of the designation as we could see no evidence for it based on the physical condition of the schools at that time.

In retrospect, it was an ideal time for staff to investigate the data that had determined the designation, but our questions went unanswered.

In 2006, the Ministry of Education provided an opportunity for boards to add or remove schools from their PTR inventories. Despite the many questions concerning the designation of these schools, HWDSB chose not to take this second opportunity to investigate taking these schools off the list.

The threat of closure prompted by the PTR designation caused Dalewood and Prince Philip to be starved of capital investment relative to other schools in the board.

In 2008, the Ministry ceased using the PTR system for school classification. Nonetheless, the shadow remained and our schools continued to be denied investment.

In January 2011, the Committee of the Whole voted to approve the Dalewood ARC. The report submitted to trustees contained the erroneous FCI data. Shortly after this the error was discovered.

Error Not Disclosed

The first public meeting of the Dalewood ARC process was held on April 6, 2011. As part of the presentation [PDF], in reference to the earlier questions raised by the West Hamilton Schools Planning Committee, staff stated, "early community concerns about the questionable PTR designation can be reviewed in a new context."

The corrected FCI numbers were presented at this meeting, but the minutes [PDF], as well as a videotape of the meeting provided by GR Allan School Council Chair 2010-11 John Elliot, indicate that the board did not share the fact that the PTR designations were erroneous with the public or the ARC at this time.

In response to a question about the updated FCI numbers during an informal discussion at a working group meeting [PDF] on June 22, Trustee Bishop revealed to the ARC for the first time that the PTR designations were, in fact, erroneous.

However, it was not revealed that it was an error in the FCI data that had led to the wrongful designation.

At the September 14 working meeting, the ARC requested a copy of the Executive Report [PDF] presented to trustees before their vote to initiate the ARC in January 2011. The magnitude of the error in the FCI data was unknown to the ARC until this point.

According to the report, the FCI numbers for Dalewood and Prince Philip were 145% and 97.7% respectively. The corrected numbers were 63% and 67%. No mention of the connection between the incorrect FCI and the wrongful PTR was made at this time.

In response to a question at the September 27 working group meeting [PDF], staff shared that the discrepancy between the FCI numbers in the Executive Report and the FCI numbers given to the ARC and presented to the public on April 6 was due to the original data being incorrect.

Again, no mention of the connection between this incorrect data and the wrongful PTR designation.

In another working group meeting on October 12, an ARC member asked if the trustees would have initiated the ARC if they had had the correct FCI data at the time. This question appears to have gone unanswered.

Backpedaling

The board and ARC recommendations were presented to the public on October 19. It was only after this, at a working group meeting [PDF] on November 23, that staff shared that it was the incorrect FCI that had led to the wrongful PTR designation so many years ago.

At a Committee of the Whole meeting on January 16, 2012, Director John Malloy stated that the trustees were made aware of the FCI error at the time of its discovery, but staff concluded there were other reasons for moving ahead with the ARC.

While Trustee Bishop was certainly aware of the error during the process, other trustees we have spoken to tell us they only learned of it from members of the ARC after the recommendations were submitted. We haven't been able to track down documentation showing when the trustees were informed.

In a letter in response to ARC member Kristen West, Associate Director Ken Bain claimed that the ARC and the public were made aware of the erroneous FCI data leading to the wrongful PTR designation at the April 6, 2011 public meeting of the ARC.

This claim was repeated in the same April 3, 2012 report [PDF] where staff admitted they would not have initiated the ARC if they had discovered the error prior to the trustee vote.

As we know from the minutes and the videotape of the meeting, these claims are false.

ARC Vindicated

Our ARC reps went into this process with a clear-eyed, level-headed determination to be willing to make the tough decision to close a school if that is what the financial and enrollment numbers dictated. As it happens, the evidence presented during the course of this ARC pointed to status quo being the best option for the Dalewood area at this time.

The ARC has now been vindicated in their assessment by staff's admission that they would not have initiated an ARC in our area at this time if they had known about the erroneous data a few weeks earlier.

Given the fact that the rationale for this ARC was predicated on an error, and given staff's documented lack of forthrightness in revealing the existence of this error and its full implications on the wrongful PTR designation, we feel the only fair and just outcome for this ARC is status quo.

We hope that a majority of trustees will see it the same way tonight.


Mary Louise Pigott was a member of the West Hamilton Schools Planning Committee, the George R. Allan School ARC Sub-Committee, and is the out-going President of the George R. Allan Home & School. She is a volunteer with We Need Three, a parent group advocating to keep Prince Philip School open. She would like to thank Dalewood ARC reps Anita McGowan and Kristen West for providing the timeline of events around the erroneous PTR designation, and supporting documents. She would also like to thank past Chair of the George R. Allan School Council John Elliot for having the prescience to videotape the April 6 public meeting of the Dalewood ARC.

Mary Louise Pigott is an armchair urbanist and founding member of the Useful Knowledge Society, whose passion for urban neighbourhoods and public spaces occasionally moves her to write.

You can follow her on twitter at @mlhpigott.

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By Sarah W (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2012 at 17:42:47

Hope the news is in your favour this evening Mary Louise! Good work at keeping pressure on the board and pushing for transparency and evidence-based decision-making.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 16, 2012 at 22:38:09

Amazing work with the article, Mary. Really enjoy the depth of the research work here.

How many other schools have been or are in the process of being closed because faulty methadologies like ReCapp and the FCI? How many other public institutions (hospitals, administration buildings etc) are being affected by similar problems. And how many have been torn apart and rebuilt at enormous cost because of similar rules which paid no actual attention to the buildings in question?

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By Etruscan (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2012 at 23:42:37

Prince Philip will close its doors at the end of the next school year.

With a 6-5 vote, public school board trustees supported shuttering the Ainslie Wood elementary school in June 2013.

Prince Philip students will be shuffled to G.R. Allan elementary school in Westdale the following September.

“I believe this is the right opportunity, the right time to do this,” said trustee Jessica Brennan, who backed the closure.

“I worry that if we keep the status quo, these three schools will continue to suffer,” added board chair Tim Simmons.

The decision was met with derision from members of the Ainslie Wood and Westdale communities who attended Monday's meeting. Shouts of “shame” could be heard throughout the boardroom when the vote was announced.

Many parents and community members have opposed the closure since the outset of the accommodation review last April since, they have argued, it will lead to overcrowding at G.R. Allan as well as the loss of a walkable school and community hub.

Several trustees also spoke out against the closure, including Todd White, who said getting rid of Prince Philip will “gut the community.”

“That is something I am not prepared to do,” he added.

Trustees Lillian Orban and Karen Turkstra, meanwhile, raised concerns over Prince Philip students having to cross busy Main Street West to get to G.R. Allan.

“We're asking elementary students, not secondary students, to cross five or eight lanes of traffic,” Turkstra said.

“It's the busiest street in Hamilton.”

Though the outlook was bleak for Prince Philip, both G.R. Allan and Dalewood Middle School will benefit from $5.8 million in capital improvements in connection with the closure.

Some of the projects include the installation of elevators, additional classroom space, a new gym for G.R. Allan and accessible washrooms.

~

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/706662--prince-philip-school-to-close

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 07:08:47

I was interested to hear ward 1 trustee Judith Bishop again offer this justification - among others, of course - for closing Prince Philip: the board will then have the funds to put an elevator into G. R. Allan. Because it's dreadfully unfair that child in a wheelchair might have to be bussed to an accessible school.

So instead, we'll just bus almost the entire Prince Philip population, you see. Isn't that better?

I mention this not as mere sniping. It's an example of the sort of rationalizations which have been tossed to the public: it sounds very well-meaning - and probably is well-meaning at heart - but not particularly sound. And it's the sort of thing which taints the whole process.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-04-17 07:09:40

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 18:55:17 in reply to Comment 75986

Thanks Ken. As a parent of kids at Prince Philip, this is the sort of thing that makes me think I am living in some sort of Bizarro World. I cannot fathom some of the arguments and answers we are being given by the staff and six trustees that want to shutter Prince Philip. None of the concerns - none - raised by our campaign have been addressed in the slightest.

It's worth pointing out that for improvements like elevators to G.R. Allan, there is currently no funding. There's a drastic funding shortfall in the Board staff's proposal, that has not been addressed.

I think it's unlikely we would actually see any of the promised improvements, aside from the four JK classrooms for which there is guaranteed provincial funding.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:10:39

Ainsliewood is now officially a student ghetto and no longer a residential neighborhood. Well, it's not like Hamilton doesn't have a lot of other great neighborhoods to raise a family in a safe, walkable community, right? .... Right?

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 18:56:25 in reply to Comment 75996

No way Pxtl. We're not giving up on our community. No matter what happens. No matter how our concerns are ignored by the powers that be. We will not only survive, we will flourish.

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By Totes (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 20:39:44

You can do anything in Hamilton.(It might just take time and repeated attempts.)

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 00:21:29

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