March 2015: Newsletter

Some thoughts on winter and weather-related cancellations

Schools should always be open and parents should decide whether or not their children attend. School should not be open until all routes to school are completely safe. In the last 24 hours I’ve heard both. This winter has been particularly polarizing. And it’s entirely possible that in the end the situation as managed by HRSB senior staff reflects the best middle way. We’re welcome to debate that. But another and possibly more pressing question going forward is how we ensure continued delivery of the Public School Program (PSP) no matter the conditions. What do we need to do to prepare for what will almost surely continue to be a shifting weather landscape?

Sticking to the present for a moment I’ve been among the parents who think school should be open no matter what. I have to work. But what I’ve come to realize is that unlike principals and teachers when I report to work I’m responsible for no one but myself. My staff and I are not responsible for almost 50,000 children. If we’re agreed that the safety of our children is paramount are we comfortable sending them to school not knowing whether enough staff have made it to work to supervise them?

And is supervision the goal? What about education? The funding boards receive from the Province is for delivering the PSP not supervision.  If the school day is reduced to something other than instruction is the funding for education being responsibly spent? Would money and time be better spent finding another way to deliver education in such instances?

At the other extreme are those who call for the complete assurance of safe passage from home to school as the basis for decision-making. Should the HRSB be holding itself to an even higher standard of safety? Ultimately it’s for parents to decide whether safety is sufficiently served. The HRSB brings its own standard to bear and is demonstrably diligent in doing so. Would the cost to education of an even higher standard of safety be supportable?

Back to future winters and the questions that arise. What are we learning from this winter? How do we continue to deliver the PSP assuming disruptions continue in frequency and intensity? Is instruction classroom-dependent? Are families in a position to have children work from home? There are many questions that we might ask ourselves but chief among them is this: how do we ensure continued delivery of the PSP in a shifting weather landscape? At a minimum that’s something all of us could be contemplating.

In other weather-related news. Of the 137 schools in the HRSB more than half had experienced some form of breech in their building envelope even before last week’s storms. A winter that in January looked like it would be kind to the budget has ended up taking its toll in repairs and snow removal. And while some of the repair work is insured it carries a $5000 deductible per school. Up until this most recent round of weather the HRSB had been the hardest hit of the province’s boards, the type and order of weather wreaking unprecedented havoc. And it’s not over yet. That which is frozen must now melt. Leaks are expected to continue until end of spring.

The governing board has requested that streets on which schools are located be given priority by the City when it comes to snow clearing. Unofficially this seems to at least sometimes be the case but according to published guidelines streets on which schools are located are not listed as a priority.

Owing to the efforts of one particularly proactive group, the Halifax Boys Honour Choir, the School Trips Policy has been placed under review. For the time being the superintendent has revised existing procedures to allow for out-of-province travel by elementary school children. While a full review proceeds interim decisions will be subject to his authority. Travel by elementary school children was allowed under the previous policy but removed in 2010, the rationale unknown. The Policy committee will now undertake a comprehensive review.

The first step in the Province’s new School Review process is nearing completion. The HRSB’s Long Range Outlook, a 10-year plan listing and describing each of the 137 schools in the system, will soon be reviewed by the governing board. Features include: new formula for calculating a school’s capacity based on square footage instead of number of classrooms; utilization of the school based on that calculation; programme offerings; physical condition of the school; history; existing Provincial commitments; and opportunities for site development such as the Hub model. The Province’s timeline allows for public review of the Outlook from May to August, an unfortunate scheduling. The governing board will be proposing an extension.

HRM is currently reviewing renewal of the Supplementary Funding agreement. The agreement now set to expire has provided approximately $17m in each of its four years. Its enhancement of education municipality-wide is invaluable. And it’s the board’s hope and request that Council  endorse the same or a greater level of funding in order to continue the extension of supplementary services to all areas of HRM.

The Province has offered a strings-attached “yes” to the combining of the Beaufort and LeMarchant-St. Thomas school sites for construction of a replacement for the latter. The strings? The Province will commit only if HRM says yes and HRM can’t say yes until its consulted citizens via a public hearing process. In short, a costly hearing for HRM based on a conditional “yes” from the Province. The City has asked the Province to revisit the way in which the discussion proceeds.

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