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Another reason why I am happy to be a Canadian…

According to Gallup, 40% of Americans believe that humans were created by a “god” in the past 10,000 years while this number is only 14% north of the border.

I love Americans. I truly do. They are an amazing people. But I just don’t understand them sometimes. They voted in Dubya twice. Indebted themselves into oblivion. And 4 out of ten of them, like our own Stockwell Day, think that humans played with dinosaurs.

A cousin of mine who is an ex-pat Québécois living in Tennessee, once remarked to me on Facebook that in the States, unlike Canada, religion and faith is everywhere. You can’t get away from it. With data like these, I think I understand what he said a bit better.

But still – wow. What a difference.

And I bet that if you removed the Alberta respondents, the 14% would drop into the single digits.

But if we’re so smart, why:

  • Do we keep voting in the ReformCons?
  • Have Ontario voters not pushed governments to abolish the separate schools system?
  • Do we have voting rates in the 50’s?
  • Does our weather suck so much?

OK – the last point is just me whining.


A follow up to my post on the school kids in Morinville, Alberta

A while back, I wrote this piece about non-Catholic kids in this small Alberta community being forced to attend a Catholic school.

The Alberta Education Minister, Dave Hancock, seems to agree that a way must be found to provide a secular education to families on the area.

They have a legitimate beef, says Hancock. “I think that they’re entitled to a public education that doesn’t include religion,” he said in an interview.

The columnist goes even further and notes:

Frankly, I think the denominational school system should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are the only provinces that still maintain publicly funded separate schools. Quebec got rid of the denominational system years ago with very little fuss.

Newfoundland replaced its church-run schools with a public system about a decade ago after a referendum. The world didn’t fall apart there, either.

Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and any other religious group has the right to educate their children in a faith-based system if they choose – but it should not be on the public’s dime.

In the meantime, it is encouraging that the Alberta government is on its way to correcting this injustice.


Too many kids and not enough space in urban Ottawa schools

The issue of overcrowded elementary schools in the urban core and the fringes of the urban core came up more than a few times during the School Board election campaign last fall.  It was not then and is not now a situation that has an easy solution.  The Citizen re-visited the problem in an article the other day on the space problems in a few schools in Old Ottawa South, the Glebe and Centretown.

The problem is most acute at First Avenue Public School in the northeast part of the Glebe, which was built to hold 400 students and currently has more than 550. But Hopewell Avenue Public School in Old Ottawa South and Elgin Street Public School in Centretown are also at or over capacity. Meanwhile — and in part because French immersion programs are wildly popular with many parents — English-oriented schools in the same neighbourhoods are under capacity.

The school board must come up with at least a stopgap for this September because First Avenue simply cannot fit any of the 77 junior kindergarten students currently expected to enrol.

To their credit, the Board and staff is holding a public consultation session to discuss some of the options that will hopefully mitigate the problem in the short term. But these suggestions are indeed only short term solutions – and are recognised as such by Zone 9 Trustee Rob Campbell:
“We’re just looking at temporary measures for September 2011 that will buy us time so we can all sit down and have a much longer, more in-depth discussion about more permanent measures,” he said.

I’m sure that Trustee Campbell and other urban Trustees will do their very best to ensure that decisions are taken that are in the best interests of the students and families of these schools, but some serious questions remain.

Why didn’t the OCDSB see this coming? And if they did, why didn’t they act before this?

This is planning short-sightedness at its finest and, combined with chronic underfunding by the province (mostly due to the existence of our wasteful duplication of school systems) is what has led to this situation. About a decade ago, staff recommended the closure of some urban schools because of projections that led them to believe that the urban supply of students was on the decline. The Board intervened, and rightly so, but why was there not a further step taken (maybe there was and I’m simply not aware of it) to look a little more deeply into the assumptions leading to the conclusions ten years ago?

Furthermore, was no one at the Board listening to the parents and the principals at these and other urban and urban fringe schools over the past several years. They would have seen this crisis unfolding before their eyes!

Has no one noticed that the “temporary” portables used at many, many schools are still there decades later? Could this not have provided some clues that there may be a flaw in the analyses about the demand and supply of education services?

(And now today we are told that a school had to close for the day due to problems with its boiler. So not only are our public system school overcrowded in many cases, they are falling apart!)

Again, I am sure that some Trustees have done what they could to make their voices heard about overcrowding and decaying infrastructure, yet to no avail.

Yet, ya know, I have to wonder – if this were a suburban issue instead of an urban one – whether more attention would have been paid to the pleas of the school communities.  The focus at City Hall has been one that has favoured the areas outside of the Greenbelt so why shouldn’t the OCDSB be any different?

Just sayin’….


OCDSB Chair McKenzie responds to questions about aging infrastructure in core schools.

Two key things to notice in this vid – first, she does not answer a direct question about non-core schools being prioritized above suburban schools. Then right at the end she says:

In the past, we have not put a priority on some of our infrastructures.


New OCDSB Chairs, etc.

The new Chair, Vice-Chair and Committee Chairs were elected at last night’s OCDSB meeting – the inaugural one for the new Board.

  • Trustee Jennifer McKenzie, Chair
  • Trustee Bronwyn Funiciello Vice-Chair
  • Chair – Human Resources Committee – Trustee Pam Fitzgerald
  • Chair – Budget Committee – Trustee Rob Campbell
  • Chair – Education Committee – Trustee Shirley Seward
  • Chair – Business Services Committee – Trustee Katie Holtzhauer

The new board will govern until November 30, 2014.

Good luck to all of them. I hope they make fair and well-considered decisions on behalf of the Ottawa public education community.

Stay tuned over the next 4 years as I check on their progress every now and then and praise or, if need be, critique their decisions.


The OCDSB’s big challenges

The next four years promise to be an interesting time for the new School Board. There are some new Trustees in the seats as some were either defeated in the past election or chose not to run again. And this change in composition may herald a shift in influence and direction at the Board table.

What comes out of the inaugural meeting on December 1st will tell me a lot about the direction that we can expect this Board to take. This is the meeting where the Chair and Co-Chair is elected by the Trustees. The same goes for the Chairs of the various Board Committees. The choice of the Chairs is an important decision as they can control and direct debate on issues at the table and are arguably the most influential players when it comes to local education decision-making.

One person who quite impressed me in the way she managed the few meetings I have attended was the current Chair, Cathy Curry. Speaking from experience, it is quite a challenge to manage a group with differing and often conflicting agendas. She does this admirably and should be credited for this.

But, I think that the majority of Trustees on this new Board may want a change of direction and we’ll see a few changes in who is occupying most of the Chairs (musical Chairs? :)).

So. In this context, what are the challenges for this Board over the next 4 years? Here is my short list.

1. Full integration of the new Early Learning program into the Board’s schools. Already, some Boards are balking at the instructions that the Ministry of Education are issuing. Peel Board, for example, has scaled back the number of new Early Learning programs due to an absence of adequate funding flowing from the Province. It will be interesting to see how Queen’s Park replies as more Boards realize they simply do not have the resources to offer these programs at the level the Province is demanding while at the same time keeping the Boards” budgets balanced..

It is important that the OCDSB engage the existing pre-school education community in Ottawa. From what I have heard, there has been little or no consultation in the past when it came to decisions that directly impacted the non-Board pre-school community. We are all part of the broader Ottawa education “community”! Let’s work together more closely to try and address the issues raised by the early education community in the context of Board constraints and Provincial edicts.

2. Funding shortfalls. The Board, like others in the Province, is going to have to get creative about how they will manage funding shortfalls and demands for new or enhanced programs – or simply the preservation of existing programs. And I suspect that this particular Board is going to have a very, very difficult time prioritizing directions.

At a minimum, I suggest the following:

a) Look at new revenue sources instead of always searching for areas to be cut. Generating energy by using solar panels – a new initiative by the Board – is a good idea. And I am sure there are more good ideas in our communities. Go and ask them.
b) Work with local communities and businesses to find synergies that can be used to preserve and enhance program delivery.
c) Actively and forcefully lobby the Province to re-visit the need for two separate school systems. Many of the under funding issues that are due to declining enrollment and aging infrastructure could be addressed by merging the separate with the public school systems.
d) Realizing that 3 above will not happen overnight, continue to look for ways that the two Boards – along with the two French language Boards – can use common facilities, resources, etc.

3) English versus French language demand. I addressed this a couple of posts back and I re-emphasize it here. I do think it is vital to offer a comprehensive English language program to whoever demands it – although this may result in some students having to change schools due to supply / demand dynamics.

The only way to intelligently analyse where the demand for both programs exists and what is driving this demand is to carefully research these questions using scientific methods and an unbiased analytical framework. This is very important and such an initiative should be discussed at the Board table at the same time as discussion about the strategic plan.

4) Maintaining relevance in the community. I am not going to expand on this too much because I talked about it over the course of the campaign. But suffice it to say that if issues around communication, responsiveness and transparency are not addressed, then the Board will find it increasingly difficult to get support from the community when the Province (not “if”, but “when”) takes more decision making powers from the local level.

Well, those are the “broad brush” issues as I see them. Over the next 4 years, I will be checking in on these issues from time to time to see if the current Board is up to the task of tackling them intelligently and creatively.


Post election reflections

The election was October 25.

I caught a flight to Beijing via Vancouver at 7 am the next day.

Not a lot of time to reflect.

But now I have finally had a bit of time to reflect on the campaign and the results. It has been a whirlwind few months for my family and me. The campaign monopolized most evenings and weekends and then, to make things even busier, I was assigned to a 12 day business trip to Beijing… with the flight leaving at 7 am on October 26th – the morning after the election.

While finishing second in the election was never my aim, it was a strong second. And this indicates to me that at least a sizable portion of the voters in Zone 6 were either unhappy with the current Trustee or liked what they heard from me. I hope it was more the latter than the former.

And we did get to about 4000 doorsteps, and that has to count for something, right?

What we did not have was an opportunity to address a large group or two to tell my story. Community associations and the like organise all-candidates meetings for the Mayoral and Council candidates, but the most the Trustee candidates can hope for is the offer of a table upon which to place campaign literature. But hey, that is better than nothing at all!

Unseating an incumbent is difficult at the best of times. But unseating him or her when one really does not have many or any opportunity to address the broad community makes it almost impossible. We did try to reach out in many ways. A Facebook fan page was set up, I Twittered like a fiend, and this site was regularly updated.

We had coverage in the EMC Ottawa South edition., the Riverview Park Review and the Manor Park Chronicle.

I filled out at least a dozen surveys sent to us by different groups and answered any and all questions from individual voters in an expedient way.

We even had a campaign ad! Unfortunately, the newspaper made an error and the ad went to into the Nepean edition and not the Ottawa South edition. Not many Zone 6 voters to be found in Nepean!

But at the end of it all, my family and I had quite an adventure – though my 6 year old told us that she doesn’t want to hear the word “election” for a while.

We gave it a go, fought the good fight and all that. I made a lot of new friends and found that the fire in the belly is still burning strong.

So, what’s next and will I run again in 2014?

Over the next few years I am going to engage even more in my community. You will see my name popping up here and there giving my opinion on local education issues or other education-related matters. I will be posting regularly on this blog and Tweeting frequently (@baldjam). This campaign has reminded me that I live in a very special community and just because the election is over, I want to continue to get involved where I can.

I will be holding Trustee Funiciello to what she said in her campaign literature about being accessible to all parents in the Zone. For the sake of all parents in the community, I do sincerely hope she meant it.

I’m not doing this to set myself up for another run at the Trustee seat. I want to become more involved in my community because I have rediscovered how special and fulfilling it is to be engaged. I want to contribute on one level or another, even if 2014 approaches and I am not inclined to try again.

And I encourage each of you in the Alta Vista and Rideau-Rockcliffe communities to stay involved as well.  It is important that we make the Board aware that our community is indeed watching and judging the decisions that they make over the next while. With funding uncertainties, the introduction of the early learning programs, the new strategic plan, the future of special programs and numerous other issues on the horizon, they have much work to do.

Like I said: what an adventure!


The OCDSB questionnaire – good intentions, but…

There has been much a-flutter in Ottawa over a survey that is being sent to all students in the Public School Board. There are actually two different questionnaires – one sent to K – Grade 6 and another to Grade 7-12.

As someone who knows very well the value of good information and how it can be used to inform decisions on policies and programs, I initially thought, OK… why not? After all, if the data that are to be collected are relevant to the design of policies and programs at the Board level and if they are collected and analysed using scientific methodologies, then this may be a step forward.

But wait a minute?

Um, why is Q 18 collecting information on religion? These are public schools, after all?

OK – maybe this is a bit of a profiling exercise….

Wait – and what about this:

25. In general, how do you feel that you are treated by school staff in your school?

26 b) Do you feel you school expectations have been applied to you in a fair manner?

Seriously? Is there a teenager on the planet who feels that they have been treated “fairly” by their school or the staff? I sure haven’t met one!

And why this?

29 b) If you have been threatened, bullied or harmed by anyone at your current school do you think it is because of any of the following? (Please check all that apply.)

What follows in a who list of reasons why the Board thinks someone may have been subjected to bullying (e.g., sexual orientation, physical appearance). It also asks where and how often the bullying took place.

I get the reason for this question – it is to identify the motivations behind intimidation and harassment and to put into place school-specific programs that may help to mitigate bullying. Bullying sucks and those who bully are basically cowards. This is a given and schools should work toward eliminating it to the greatest extent possible.

BUT, the statistical side of my brain says that there will be no way to use this information at the school level – the only geographic unit where it would be useful – because there will be an insufficient numbers of respondents to each of these categories to publish and interpret the results and still preserve confidentiality. Any results will be unusable at the level of aggregation needed . So why ask these questions at all in a survey like this one?

Finally – sigh – the survey is voluntary. According to Randall Denley’s column:

Then there is the issue of the quality of the information and how it will be used. There are a couple of real problems here. This is not a study that is in any way scientific. Hammond says the board hopes to get a response rate of between 60 and 70 per cent and will be pleased if it does.

Here we go again.

Let me be clear. There will be groups of families who will not complete this questionnaire. Newcomers to Canada, those families of lower income and or education, those who have serious problems at home and are worried that school officials may learn about them. These are families who are much less likely to complete the questionnaire fully and truthfully.

And what about those families with children who may be gay, lesbian, bullied, harassed or otherwise marginalized? Well, they are not very likely to complete it either for a myriad of personal reasons. Some of the content of the survey is about very deep and personal matters and I cannot imagine that students will be at all comfortable expressing themselves openly and truthfully.

So, the reporting population will be skewed and the results will be unrepresentative, unreliable and essentially useless at the school level. And this is too bad because there are some questions on the survey whose answers may have been useful (e.g., Part V, Learning Support, Tools and Resources).

My advice would have been that, for the 120K spent on this survey, the OCDSB would have been better served hiring an experienced external consultant to administer a series of targeted questionnaires combined with some well-designed focus groups and cognitive interviews.

But hey, that’s just me.


Public schools are back in business tomorrow morning!

So, please, please, please be careful on your streets and roads!

The little ones may not yet know the “rules of the road” so it up to the rest of us to ensure that the first day of school is full of happy memories for everyone.

This is the law in Ontario:

Drivers – always stop for the bus

Whether on a city street, highway or county road, and regardless of the speed limit and the number of lanes, motorists travelling in both directions must stop when approaching a stopped school bus with its upper red lights flashing. A flashing stop arm will swing out while passengers are boarding or leaving the bus. (The only exception: on highways separated by a median, traffic coming from the opposite direction is not required to stop). Once all passengers have boarded, the STOP arm will fold away. Do not start moving until the red lights have stopped flashing and the bus begins to move.


First offence:   $400 to $2,000 and six demerit points
Each subsequent offence:   $1,000 to $4,000, six demerit points and possible jail time up to six months


Ottawa elections

As much as I love to rail on the Harperites and their version of a Comedy of Errors, I’m going to shift the focus of the political part of this blog (um, OK, so it really is 95% political… as much as I like to write the odd “daddy-blogger” entry here and there) to the Ontario municipal races – especially here in Bytown. I’ll likely keep with the practice of scribbling my Friday Miscellany notes and will vent my anti-DeceptiCon rants in that space.

Why refocus? Because I was/am a student of local government and despair that this level of government – the level that is closest to the people who vote for them – is largely ignored and widely misunderstood. Voter turnouts for municipal elections are in the 40-55% range and this pitiful level of civic engagement shows little sign of improving any time soon.

I think it important to encourage a focus on local issues because these are what touch us directly. Our emergency services, schools, road maintenance and snow clearing, libraries and waste management are all the responsibility of our Council and School Boards. Decisions are taken by our local Council and School Boards on how our communities are planned, the protection of our natural environment, and where and our children are educated. Local decisions made by local people like you and I.

Local government is vital. It is in our backyards. And it is largely ignored. That is unfortunate.

So – just for old times sake, here is a candid shot I took of John Baird during last spring’s session of Parliament. I think he is making a point of order.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a point of order..."