The View from Halifax Needham – Maureen MacDonald, MLA’s HRSB Presentation – Imagine Our Schools

March 19, 2008
Halifax Regional School Board Presentation
Imagine Our Schools

Maureen MacDonald, MLA
Halifax Needham
(North and central Halifax Peninsula, Citadel Family of Schools)

Given the tight time limits for verbal presentations I have brought a written presentation for your consideration. I will speak briefly to summarize the main points.

Having received the report and recommendations of the consultants, the Board has had the benefit of what certainly can be characterized as a dispassionate external overview of school facilities on the peninsula by a consortium of professionals with considerable expertise in educational facilities planning. I am not going to use any of my limited time critiquing the consultation process itself. Suffice it to say that it had strengths and weaknesses, as any process of this nature has. The important thing is that that process is augmented with more nuanced perspectives, such as those of the Board’s senior management team, who bring their own expertise, experience and understanding of what is needed, further refining the recommendations to the Board.

These public hearings offer another layer of experience and expertise, which is the on the ground experience and expertise of parents, community leaders and community partners.

I have read all the material made available by the Board and I accept the premise that we have aging infrastructure that requires renewal. One has only to visit our schools to observe this. It’s my commitment to my constituents that I will work hard to secure a financial commitment from the provincial government to invest in our school infrastructure, but I will not work to close schools, unless the community accepts school closures as being in the educational interests of their children and their communities.

Demographic analysis
While I accept the declining enrollment analysis, particularly as it relates to the past 10 years, I want to challenge what I consider to be a serious overstating/exaggeration of the extent of this problem in the foreseeable future and the resulting recommendations from Board senior staff to close five/seven additional schools on the peninsula.

I want to draw the Board’s attention to page 27- 28 of the consultants report regarding declining enrollment in the Citadel Family of Schools. When the numbers were crunched by the consultants using the methodology they extol for its accuracy and validity the result was that there will be 354 fewer children in peninsula schools over the next ten years. 354. Those are their numbers. 354. That’s what their report says. 354, or on average 35 fewer students each year for ten years.

In fact at the first public meeting at Leeds Street, NSIT Community College site Ms.
O’Shaughnessy used the term “stabilized” to describe the enrolment projections for Peninsula Schools.

So with projections indicating on average 35 less students per year for the next ten years Board staff are recommending closing Oxford elementary, St. Pat’s Alexandra elementary, Ecole St. Joe’s A. MacKay elementary, and St. Mary’s elementary plus Oxford Junior High, Cornwallis Junior High and St. Pat’s- Alexandra Junior High, in no small part justified by data that indicates 354 fewer students in our schools over the next ten years, or on average 35 less students each year for ten years!

In my view the recommendations to close such a large number of schools is not supported by the consultant’s demographic information and analysis.

I want also to express my disappointment at the total lack of attention given to the approximately 5,000 children in HRM, many who live here on the Peninsula, whose parents have opted out of the public system and who attend private school. It’s regrettable that no thought was given to seriously grapple with any possibility of attracting back into the public system those who have opted out. This begs the question “how much attention throughout this planning process was paid to preventing even more parents from leaving our public schools in the future?” I would urge the Board to give this some consideration.

Excess Space Capacity
I also want to raise how excess space capacity is being calculated. Perhaps the Board understands the space calculations far better than I, but I am having a great deal of difficulty understanding the extent to which there is excess capacity in our schools, because I can assure you that I visit these schools and have observed for example in the case of St. Joe’s-A. MacKay every available space is in use, perhaps not as a classroom, but certainly for special education, specialized learning environments, fine arts, computer labs, a breakfast program and resource recovery rooms. The DOE now recommends a classroom/instructional space is 900 square feet. Classrooms in all our schools built 30 + years ago are 650-750 square feet. So when the consultants use an “instructional space” are they working with a 650-750 sq feet classroom, or are they factoring in 900 sq feet? It’s not clear from the report or background documents what square footage per instructional space is being used in calculation surplus space, and at any rate there is an additional issue for schools designated “inner city schools” These schools have additional program space needs such as for 4+ or resources and special needs. These needs do not appear to have been assessed in the space calculations.

Recommendations for individual schools
I now would like to address the recommendations in the staff report associated with each of the schools located within or serving residents of Halifax Needham.

1. Staff recommends building a new 350 capacity Joe Howe School as the Board’s number two priority using provincial money already approved for what had been an intended to be a new south end elementary school. I support this recommendation in principle, but I have several questions that I would hope the Board would ask staff for additional information on and that this information be provided to the public, and that the Board then hears from the public before making a final decision.

a.) What is a “model school based on community partnerships”? This needs to be defined in a much more concrete manner. The consultants in their executive summary talk about St. Pat’s-Alexandra being a “site for the creation of a model community centered school.” And say “Alterations would include the expansion of childcare programming and the addition of other family, recreation, adult education and social services programs needed in the north end community”.
(If this is what is being envisioned there needs to be a significant amount of community consultation. I will not second guess the community, but it’s certainly my perception that the community is not thrilled to use one example with the Flex program currently being located in an elementary school, and during the consultation phase of this process, opposition to locating social services in schools was very clearly expressed. Children living in an inner city neighbourhood need tools to survive and thrive in an imperfect world where inequality and racism is all too prevalent. Where little children are stigmatized simply for being who they are and where they live I believe that schools have an added obligation to not only deliver the core curriculum, helping children read, write, speak, do math, problem solve, think critically, be creative and develop a strong sense of civic and cultural pride rooted in a rich history of struggle, resilience, and accomplishment. I question if adding many other services into an elementary school already with more than it share of challenges will place an additional workload on administration and staff, whose priority should be a focus on the curriculum and good parental and community relations.)

b.) Is it envisioned that this school would be built on the existing Joe Howe site or elsewhere?

c.) Would the school boundaries ensure that elementary school children would not be
walking across North Street, a major artery for traffic to and from the Macdonald

d.) If built on the existing site, where would children attend school during

e.) Would the Halifax Development Centre be accommodated in the new school?

f.) where does the capacity of 350 come from and why is this the proposed capacity when the consultants through then public process are recommending capping elementary schools at 300? Is this predicated on closing St. Joe’s A. Mackay and what would the new boundaries look like?

2. Staff recommends review for closure St. Pat’s – Alexandra. I may be the first MLA in history to support the closing of a school in her community. I have agonized over this and I’ve met with many, many people in the community with first hand experience of this school. I have concluded this school, which has enjoyed the involvement of many dedicated principles, teachers, staff, parents and community leaders over the years is a victim of circumstances beyond it’s control. The area in which the school is located is rightly or wrongly viewed as an unsafe area beset by crime, drug dealing and prostitution. The Maitland Street entrance to the school faces the back of the old Derby tavern and parking lot, and a junk shop with a gapping hole in its wall and roof, in the former Metropolitan store. HRM has been dealing this building as an unsightly and possibly dangerous premises location for more than three years. Stepping Stone, a service working with sex trade workers is just across the street and on the Brunswick Street side the school within close proximity is a Halfway house for men on parole. No other neighbourhood would tolerate the location of their elementary school in these circumstances. The community haven’t been passive victims however, they have already decided to close this school by voting with their feet. Today the junior high has less than 40 students. 9 grade 9, 12 grade 7, 15, or 16 grade 8’s. Annual staff turn over is very high in some years it approximated close to 90% . My observation is that things have not gotten better, only worse, over the past ten years. My best guest, because the Board tells me they don’t collect out-of area transfer data, is that certainly more than half, perhaps as much as 2/3rds of the children who live in the boundaries of this school aren’t attending this school.

3. Staff recommends review for closure of St. Joe’s A MacKay. I do not support this recommendation. St. Joe’s A. MacKay is the largest elementary school in North End Halifax. Population data used by the consultants indicates this school’s population will grow over the next ten years, reflecting the infill housing being developed in several areas surrounding the school, and the repopulation of single family houses. Designated as an inner-city school, St. Joe’s A. MacKay serves Mulgrave Park and the surrounding residential area bounded by North Street and Duffus, although children from as far North as Kencrest at the very top of Novalea attend this school. It’s had a successful French Immersion program for 18 years, and reflects what I would wish for every community, and that is the ability of families and children from a broad spectrum of soci-economic and ethic, racial and cultural origins to live and work in harmony. Children from this school enjoy strong community partnerships, through Ward Five, North End Day Care, Needham Pre School, and CFB Stadacona. I would argue that this school is a key piece of infrastructure to be considered in the HRM plan to densify the peninsula.

4. Staff recommends reviewing Oxford for closing and Highland Park for expansion.
Frankly it would be my preference to see the Board recommend a new Central North Junior High School, which was the Board’s original proposal back in 2005. The Board needs to reflect on the importance of a successful junior high educational experience for all our children and I would argue this is even truer for children from the inner city feeder schools. We have had a history of specialized programs in the inner city elementary schools, but have not followed those children into the junior high schools. This review gives us an opportunity to think about this. Now is the time and I believe there would be much community support of a central north junior high school built through a process not unlike the one used to arrive at Citadel High.

In September 2005 in its Capital Project’s submission to the DOE the Board in discussing the closing of small schools and consolidation into larger schools consistently talks about program and operational efficiencies. Repeatedly it cited that program efficiencies include “the reduction in the numbers of administrative staff and secretarial support”, greater efficiency in using specialist staff such as guidance counselors, French teachers, physical education teachers”, “fewer class sizes”. To be fair it also envisioned libraries with more resources and a wider range of extracurricular options for students. While the Board’s documents stated that while it was harder to quantify fewer teachers, this was clearly anticipated.

When I imagine the schools in the community I so lucky to live in and represent in the NS Legislature I don’t imagine fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and bigger case loads or longer wait times for specialized staff.

Do not let this process for renewing our schools infrastructure be driven by concerns that schools must be reorganized as a method of saving money. That game has winners and losers and it’s been my experience that once a program or service closes in a community it does not ever come back.