When I got home from the Imagine Our Schools meeting the other evening my 12-year old asked me how it had gone. Well, I said, we did what we were told. And we did, all 200 of us, community members, teachers, students and parents who’d come from all corners of the Peninsula and given their evening to the Halifax Regional School Board for the purpose of consulting on the future of our schools. We gave them what they wanted. We behaved with the compliance the consultant wanted of us, listening when we were told to listen, talking when we were told to talk, and answering questions but not asking any. And consensus, we even managed to produce what the organizers wanted to call consensus, even though it looked more like majority rule. 200 community members, teachers, students and parents coming together from all over the Peninsula for the pleasure of performing like trained seals.
And what’s more it was like being expected to have a meaningful conversation while standing on the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange. The room was overcrowded and noisy and the clock ticking. What is the most desirable size for school population?, What do you think about Schools of Excellence?, Should HRSB rent space to other users?, What is the maximum time you would prefer your child to spend on a bus? Or walking? How far would you prefer? School boundaries? Yes or no? Not only were each of the 24 questions bound to provoke and require discussion but seven were to be considered in light of the elementary, junior high and high school contexts. In total almost 50 questions that were to be answered first by each individual and then in groups of ten, each group being charged with the task of arriving at consensus. At the end of the response form there was space for the groups’ reflections. Reflections? In water as turbulent as that is comment or reflection even possible? As for anything in particular someone might have imagined bringing to a process called “consultation” there was no allowance for it. The evening was all about answering the questions being posed, not about generating any. In the end it felt like the Board was attempting to deliver on the appearance of consultation without ever offering the genuine article.
Demoralizing is the best way to describe it. Demoralizing and frantic. The Imagine Our Schools exercise is about coming up with a 10-year master plan for facilities and yet it’s being conducted in the manner of a sprint. The Board’s last capital projects submission was rejected by the Province in the spring with the instruction that it go back to the drawing board and consider the big picture. So this is what we get. A process that involves the community and its “thoughts” as expressed and collected during a two-hour session, the first hour of which is used by the presenters trying to make short work of a long overview and, in their own sprint to the finish, setting the tone for the manner in which the rest of the evening unfolds. All that was missing was the starterâ€™s pistol.
This topic of the future of school facilities is rich with potential. This was a gathering of adults, young and old, who feel passionately about the situation facing our schools and have a wealth of knowledge and expertise and experience to offer yet Board staff has once again shown its disdain for real communication with its stakeholders. They’ve set their sights on the submission of a capital projects plan to the Province for the Spring of 2008. But what about Spring ’09? What about taking the time necessary to have genuine consultation? What about not rushing to the finish and instead taking the time necessary to make the decisions that will affect huge numbers of students and community members for many decades to come?
I understand the need for a process thatâ€™s streamlined and efficient and for posing questions that are broad in scope and yet specific enough to allow organizers to draw some general conclusions but I seriously question the effectiveness and now even the intent of the process that we took part in that night. The turnout for the event was heartening and the public enthusiastic but in the end its goodwill seems badly used and ill rewarded. Anyone looking for a reason why cynicism and apathy abound around such exercises need look no further than the IOS example.
Before going to the event I spoke with a friend who questioned the genuineness of the process. Imagine our schools?, she said reflecting on the name, Yah, I imagine our schools closed with the way this is going. At the time I laughed. I’m not laughing now. – Cindy Littlefair