September 2016: North End School Review debate comments

In the near future, the governing board will receive a recommendation to review the balance of peninsula schools. I mention this because it’s the district I represent. Part of my district. And knowing what’s coming I’ve watched this review and the last review, Eastern Passage, with particular interest. I’ve watched the demands it places on all involved. I’ve watched the committee and the SAC chairs especially and the work it represents for them, what it has demanded of you, and what it will in all likelihood demand of SAC chairs to come. It is a gargantuan ask, a gargantuan undertaking, one marked of necessity by personal sacrifice, willingness to learn and understand and defend, and selflessness. As volunteer gigs go it’s remarkably demanding. And yet while it’s likely you didn’t sign on for SAC knowing that this work would be expected of you, same for the chairs in my district, it is arguably amongst the most important work you will do as an SAC chair for what it means to the future of the physical delivery of education in HRM.

I’m a product of the old model – an old-tymie SAC chair. Most of us here remember that process. Critics of the new model may have forgotten. Board staff decided which schools should be reviewed, individual schools, and then the governing board yayed or nayed it, and, if yayed, the battle would begin. And it was miserable. It was trench warfare. Us against them. Everyone dug in. Intractable. Isolated. Individual schools set in opposition to the system, the board. Duking it out. Surrender was never an option, people feeling as strongly as they DO about their schools. And it was hard, hard work but not particularly satisfying work because the process, even properly executed, was the wrong process. And everyone knew it. And the results, the responses, were uneven from one school to the next, too often falling victim to emotional appeals targeted primarily at heart instead of head. Desparate. And when the individual schools finally came to plead their case it was as if entering the Coliseum, various forms of officialdom looking on, SAC chairs taking the floor and, as was the case the last time I appeared in front of the governing board as SAC chair, watching my school succeed and witnessing Saint Pats Alexandra’s demise firsthand. It was every man, every school, for itself – the outcomes possibly arbitrary.

This debate happens for me at a very high level. Did the committee do what it was asked to do? Was process followed? Has staff checked it for deficiencies? It happens at a very high level in part, beyond being where governance places it, because we empowered and entrusted a community in the form of the SOC to go forth and make sense of a complex situation on our behalf. We gave them that authority. School review, fraught at the best of times, was especially fraught in this instance because taking place in a particularly beleaguered community. We asked a committee to understand, and figure out, and make sense for us. And make amends. And they did, as evidenced in the report and in the presentation of their report, in a way that none of us at this table could ever have hoped or expected of ourselves. The committee got out and into the community to a depth and breadth and with a thoroughness that meant representation was true and full and where deemed to need to be truer and fuller, made so, tireless in their pursuit of a durable set of recommendations. We gave them a job to do. They did it. And to my way of thinking it is incumbent on us to support it. All of it.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in the details. I’ve read every message I’ve received. If they’d pointed to a major structural weakness and fail I’d have been all over it. If the stars had aligned to produce not only a fatally flawed report but then, perfect storm of perfect storms, a fatally flawed staff report then I and everyone at this table would have, in our individual and collective wisdom, sensed, uprooted, and exposed it. That’s what we do. But that has not been demonstrated. At most we are seeing discrete things that require additional attention and will get additional attention going forward but nothing that suggests that these recommendations or the process needs redoing.

People charge that the Committee is not expert but I say it’s as expert as we’re going to get short of turning it over to paid professionals and we know how trusting and deferential the public is toward decisions made by paid professionals. Not. That’s old school. We’ve done that. Our expectations have changed, grown, they’ve possibly gotten the better of us for being impossibly high – unwieldy, unmanageable. But that’s where we are now and that’s the bar we have to meet and that means doing the work ourselves, equipped with the best possible information and support, investing it with our time and energy, and that’s what this Committee has done.

It is with sadness that I hear what seem to be people who enjoy privilege twisting the committee’s efforts in reaching out to truly marginalized communities in order to apply that description to themselves. The committee needed not only to represent all voices but work to bring to the table those voices that have traditionally been overlooked, overpowered, or ignored. To those critics who would co-opt this argument I plead for compassion and reflection. The comparison is unjust, baseless, and damaging. A rejection of these recommendations and motions would almost certainly crush and further alienate key stakeholder groups in the community. We can’t keep telling people we have their backs, their best interests, at heart, that equity and inclusion are uppermost in our minds, if only to ignore those things in the interest of expedience. Nor can we think that committees of people will come together to do our bidding, the work of the SOC, if we arbitrarily dismiss their efforts. We can not empower them only to betray them in the final analysis. To do so is at our peril and the peril of future public engagement.

You have done a remarkable job. A difficult job. It has been messy. You have stuck with it. Seen it through. And the proof is in the result. It is so different from and superior to the old system I just described that the result is immediately light years ahead of any its predecessor ever produced. Instead of one school against the system it is a collection of schools, honouring their interdependence, and working with one another to tell the board what is needed. It is community, the on-the-ground, day-to-day experts scrutinizing their collective needs and deciding what’s in their best interest given the assigned mandate. It is a decision participated in by hundreds of participants, stickhandled by a diverse, inclusive, committed group. Representative. Is it imperfect? The committee itself tells us so. Detractors tell us so. And those things will be addressed. But is it the best we’ve ever known? Unequivocally. This is the level from which I contemplate the recommendations and the motions. I have profound respect and appreciation for the work of community and faith in the continuing evolution of what is a fundamentally more enlightened approach to managing precious and finite resources.

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