Tuesday evening, the Edmonton Public School Board voted 7-2 on the motion for a renewable moratorium on two year school closure.
I have received many thought-provoking letters from residents indicating their support or their concerns with the motion. Some believed that it reduced the board’s flexibility and opportunity to make decisions. Others thought that the moratorium might not be long enough. There are still many unanswered questions from residents about why we are closing schools, why we are opening so many new schools, why only certain sectors were targeted and if the district has a comprehensive future plan for space needs.
If we did not pass the moratorium yesterday, we could be facing more closure recommendations as soon as next month.
As a district, we are just starting the tri-level discussions to move forward and we have an unprecedented opportunity to work with our partners in the Province, the City, and with Edmonton Catholic. Mayor Mandel and the city are interested in working together and a moratorium shows that we will be partners in good faith in this process as opposed to closing schools with one hand while trying to revitalize neighbourhoods with the other.
We also have began the process of allowing our community schools equal support (circa Trustee Huff’s motion last year to work towards equal support for community schools), reviewing our central organization and elements of site-based decision making, and I feel it would not be prudent to move ahead at this time until we have our ducks in a row.
So what does a two-year renewable moratorium on school closures do?
It directs the EPSB Board and administration to work together on creative solutions instead of school closures and examine the complete costs of school closures. It gives clarity of direction from our board that this is the direction that we would like to move and that closing 19 schools in 10 years requires us to pause and revisit our needs.
From conversations with my colleagues I know our board isn’t afraid of making tough decisions, but we just want to make sure that they are tough, but fully-informed decisions.
The data surrounding the performance or quality of education for students who attend small schools is inconclusive. The cost savings accrued to the district from closing a school are unclear, if there are any. With an absence of clear motive and justification, why continue to aggressively close schools that we the taxpayers have built, paid for, and been using for years? Is it because space is being inappropriately measured, often failing to allocate for before and after school care, libraries, computer rooms, etc.? If schools have to close, where, and how many of them? By my rough estimate we would need to close almost half of the schools in the city to balance our plant operations deficit. Or is it because we lack the proper operational funding from the proper places to provide the space and services required for learning?
Many schools I have spoken to have said that they could have dramatically higher enrollment if we cut the red tape surrounding the limits on these small schools. Many families told me that the one choice our district undervalues is the choice of the community school, and the very valid reasons that families select it. It gives our district a chance to review many of our spaces and work with community groups and other levels of government to take into account the needs of our communities and create the best possible educational outcomes for every student.
We need to make sure that we are being fair and consistent with everyone, especially with the outcome of a decision is as serious as a school closure. This is an infinitely more complicated issue that cannot be simplified to a false dichotomy of “Buildings or kids.”
The elephant in the room here is that we are running two public education systems with competing infrastructure needs, competing for the same students. (Both Catholic and non-Catholic students attend both Separate and Public schools.) Our tri-level discussions give us an opportunity to look for collaborative opportunities with the Separate system.
When given a problem, it is crucial that we make absolutely clear that we are asking the right questions. A moratorium gives us time to make sure we are seeking the right answers to the real problem.
As Trustee Christopher “CKLS” Spencer quoted:
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Richard Buckminster Fuller (US engineer and architect, 1895-1983 )