Friday, 18 July 2014

On Friday, July 18, 2014 by PWSParents
Concerned Parents of Park West School

July 2, 2014
Steve Warburton
Chair, Policy Review and Development Committee
Halifax Regional School Board
·         Delivered via email to:
·         Copied concurrently to Elwin LeRoux, Superintendent of the Halifax Regional School Board

Re:  Boundary Review Process

Dear Board Member Warburton:

We were impressed with the Members of the Board at the meeting that took place on June 25, 2014. 

Board members showed a commitment to good governance and the Halifax Regional School Board’s mission, vision and values.

We were pleased to hear discussion focused on educational outcomes of the students, safety and the importance of listening to public input.

This was a good outcome for Park West and a good result in building public confidence in the Board.

However, we believe there were significant issues with the Boundary Review Process and would like to offer some suggestions for consideration.   We understand the Superintendent is considering a review of this process, so perhaps these comments will be timely and helpful.

To provide some framework for these comments we have broken them down into four categories:

1.    Involvement of the Board in Boundary Reviews;

2.    Formation and work of the Boundary Review Committee (“BRC”);

3.    Involvement of HRSB staff in Boundary Reviews;

4.    Input from the Public.

Involvement of the Board in Boundary Reviews

1.1  Evaluation of requests from staff - Staff provided the Board with the following to support initiating the Boundary Review:  there is a positive migration pattern that has continued to cause increased enrolment for a number of years”.  Reporting, such a broad statement with no additional information is not comprehensive enough for Board members to make a decision on initiating a boundary review, it does not support good decision making by the Board and breeds suspicion of the resulting decision and the motives of staff.
Staff should be required to provide supporting data and information prior to requesting the Board initiate a Boundary Review – at a minimum this should include the past 5 years of actual enrolment and next five years of forecasted enrolment.  At the same time Staff should be required to provide information on other relevant inputs such as programming, safety, etc. This would permit the Board to consider more closely whether the staff request is inclusive and that it aligns with the Boards objectives and values.
1.2  Comments by Board Members – On April 25, 2014 Chairman Gin Yee wrote an opinion piece in the Chronicle Herald indicating his personal opinion that change must happen at Park West.  This was inappropriate as he made this statement in the absence of all available information including public consultation.  It was also inappropriate as, given Gin Yee’s position as Chair of the Board,  it would not be unreasonable to believe his comments could have an impact on other Board Members.

Board Members should not offer comments in public forums as to what they believe the solutions to items currently under review may be, particularly when a process is underway to confirm and suggest alternatives.

Formation and work of the Boundary Review Committee

2.1  Staff should provide the BRC with adequate materials at the inception of the process - This should include the BRC’s written mandate, contact information of the previous BRC Chair (so they can discuss what worked/what didn’t work so as to promote continuous improvement), copies of relevant HRSB policies, historic and projected information on schools included in the review and info on other factors related to the included schools.

In addition, the Facilitator is required by Section 5.2 of the Creating School Populations Procedures to “provide the Boundary Review Committee with data on enrolment patterns, demographic trends, development prospects, transportation information, facility assessments, and any other data considered relevant by the Facilitator.”

We have been advised that in a number of instances, information requested by members did not materialize and in at least one case was instead provided by community members after they received it from HRSB though FOIPOP request.

2.2  The Board should maintain direct oversight of the BRC – A Board Member, possibly the Chair of the Policy Review and Development Committee, should be appointed to be the liaison with the Boundary Review Committee and the Chair of the BRC should report directly to that Board Member.

2.3  The Chair of the BRC should appoint his/her own staff – including the facilitator and the secretary. We recommend that these not be Halifax Regional School Board Staff, or past HRSB employees such as Terry Wadden, so as to limit conflicts of interest and perceived or actual bias.

In addition, the roles of the BRC Chair, the facilitator and the secretary should be clearly defined.

2.4  Meeting organization – HRSB staff, principals and the facilitator should not sit at the main committee table as they are simply there to be a non-voting resource.  The current BRC saw open discussion from almost 30 people with staff having a significant voice in swaying decisions. A committee of this size is almost guaranteed to be ineffective and certainly frustrating to work within for its members.

In addition, BRC meetings should include an in-camera session that excludes HRSB staff, principals and the facilitator to ensure the voting members are able to speak freely in the event they do not feel comfortable to do so in the open session.  This should not be optional as optional in-camera sessions can cause undue concern and friction when they are called on an ad-hoc basis.

The BRC should hold its meetings in a venue that is accessible to the public and provides for a recorded discussion similar to the HRSB chambers. The meetings should also be open to the public.  Sanitized committee minutes were a concern with the most recent process and as with the HRSB meetings, recorded sessions provide an added level of transparency.

2.5  Provision of information by Staff - Staff should be required to provide additional information as requested.  There were problems in obtaining information requested from staff during the most recent boundary review.  To the extent the information is not forthcoming from Staff, the Chair of the BRC should contact their liaison at the Board and the BRC process should cease until the information is provided.

2.6  Reports from the BRC – Reports should be provided with a set format and include comments on each of the evaluation criteria in table form. Each of these criteria should be broken down into specific sub-headings so the BRC members understand the definition, scope and criteria of the various components and arguments that need to be considered. For greater certainty this includes the requirements under Section 6.1 of the Creating School Populations Procedures:
6.1.1 Long-term viability;
6.1.2 Potential enrolment growth;
6.1.3 Use of space that is disused due to enrolment decline;
6.1.4 The optimum utilization of facilities;
6.1.5 The board’s policy C.010 Race Relations, Cross Cultural Understanding, and Human Rights in learning that promotes principles that value and celebrate diversity;
6.1.6 The impact on the affected students and communities;
6.1.7 The impact on the delivery of programs;
6.1.8 The Family of Schools structure of the board;
6.1.9 The clarity and consistency of the proposed boundary;
6.1.10   Student transportation and safety.

However, as noted by Dave Wright during his comments to the Board at the June 26, 2014 Board Meeting, the impact on the education of the students should take paramount importance when evaluating options.

Finally, the final report of the BRC should be submitted and presented directly to the Board.

2.7  Public access to materials of the BRC – all materials reviewed and received by the BRC (including but not limited to minutes of the BRC and input letters from members of the public) should be made public. Minutes should be made available within 1 day of being approved. All relevant information related to the above criteria, student populations, demographics, etc. should be made immediately available on the website in a structured, easily accessible manner, to allow the public to perform their own review. This is the best option to solicit quality public input for possible scenarios while maintaining transparency.

Involvement of HRSB staff in Boundary Reviews

3.1  Provision of timely information – Staff should be required to provide the information required to the BRC at the start of the process.
3.2  Provision of consistent and well explained information – Staff should be required to fully explain, cite their sources and provide calculations of any information they provide on capacity.  This was not done during the past review and in fact, staff provided revised capacity numbers on the night of the final Board meeting, highlighting the need to provide this information on a more timely, detailed and accurate basis.
3.3  Interference by HRSB staff – Staff interfered with the Boundary Review Committee to such an extent as to disable them from performing their task. Some of these concerns were documented in a letter from a committee member that was provided to the Board.  Such interference included:
·         Directing committee members to recommend a change (without any comparative analysis as to whether a change was required or would be preferable to the current boundaries).
·         Directing and limiting discussion, submitting scenarios to be considered by the committee members which did not include certain scenarios submitted by the public (for example, the scenario submitted by an overwhelming portion of the Park West School community was not included in the HRSB staff scenarios purported to have come from the public);
·         Directing which scenarios would and would not be considered by the committee members (for example, staff would not permit the committee to consider a scenario that included a recommendation that HRSB staff observe its policy by enforcing existing boundaries);
·         Failing to inform the committee members of available information and documentation;
·         Failing to provide information and documentation required to be considered by committee members;
·         Failing to provide information requested by committee members and directing committee members not to disclose committee discussions with their respective school communities – with the exception of three key messages determined by HRSB staff (prior to subsequently disclosed Minutes).
3.4  Financial impact of recommendations - board staff should be obligated to provide realistic cost implications for any scenarios that a boundary review committee is considering recommending. 
We recognize that a balance is needed between requiring too much up front, but sometime before a final recommendation is formulated, the BRC and the Board need to know the cost implications of recommendations. 

Involvement of the Public

4.1  Public input – Public meetings were heavily one-sided rather than promoting productive dialogues. In addition, the exclusion of the public from the actual BRC meetings is not a transparent process.  The purpose of public meetings should be made clear (i.e. is the meeting for information only or is input being sought).  The BRC meetings should be made public as they are debates involving public institutions.

4.2  Public disclosure - Questions or comments sent into the BRC were not published on the BRC website, nor were their answers. This is in direct contrast to a pledge made early in the process recorded in their February 10th minutes as "Questions submitted are being answered and will be made public".  Correspondence should be made public as it involves comments on a publically funded institution.

Other Comments

Enrolment Policies

Halifax Regional School Board Policies regarding enrolment in the Park West catchment area are not being enforced and they should be by requiring that proof of residency in the boundary be requested via a power bill or other definitive forms of documentation.   This should be done every year, in particular for schools that the HRSB has identified as having high enrolment.

It makes no sense to consider making changes to any of the schools involved in order to address capacity issues if the effect of the changes could be effectively overridden by families who chose to send their children to schools outside their boundary areas.

Armed with that information, the community and HRSB can have an informed discussion on capacity with the knowledge that if decisions are made, and boundaries are enforced in the future, the resulting school populations at the schools involved will be in line with expectations.

Timing of Repetition of Boundary Reviews

Given the high level of disruption that a Boundary Review causes for a community we request that the motion with respect to Park West be amended to note that there will not be any further Boundary Reviews for Park West in the next four years unless there are material increases to enrolments and/or the Province of Nova Scotia imposes mandatory changes in grade configurations or class size caps resulting in the impossibility of delivering the required curriculum.