In schools compromise, the promise of a path to better solutions

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Ottawa Citizen

Written by Joanne Chianello in the Ottawa Citizen 

The escalating conflict between the needs of suburban and urban schoolchildren reached a pitched level this week.

But while two local politicians were setting their hair on fire over the issue, another councillor was trying to hammer out a compromise to address the increasingly bitter battle.

The question that has sparked the ferocious debate is whether the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board should add Broadview Public School to the list of new-build requests that the board pleadingly hands in to provincial authorities each year. Barrhaven-area trustee Donna Blackburn voted in favour of the 11th-hour push to get the Westboro-area school onto the priority list.

But adding the urban-area school means a request for a new suburban school will have to be bumped off the list.

Hence an ill-conceived letter from MPP Lisa MacLeod and Councillor Jan Harder, commanding that Blackburn change her vote or resign. That kind of rhetoric is usually reserved for officials who’ve been accused of lying, absconding with funds, or other such reprehensible behaviour. By going too far, the two politicians exacerbated bad feeling between communities without solving a thing.

But a compromise has been mediated by Councillor Stephen Blais. On the one hand, Blais seems an unlikely reasonable voice in the midst of so much chaos. With something of a bulldog reputation, at first blush the rookie councillor doesn’t appear the type to soothe whipped up emotions. But he has been a Catholic school board trustee, and understands better than most the complexities and politics that are at play in board issues.

And whatever else Blais may be, the councillor is smart.

If trustees were half as savvy, they’d embrace the plan. It’s not a perfect solution — by definition, compromise rarely is — but the proposal not only addresses the trustees’ immediate predicament, it starts the board down a road it needs to travel.

In short, the motion that Blais has helped Blackburn and east-end trustee John Shea formulate will force the Ottawa public board to take a long-term view of how to deal with a shortage of school space for new communities and a backlog for renewal work at inner city schools.

It calls for the Broadview faction to cool its heels on getting their school rebuilt. Instead, the $4 million the board has already earmarked for Broadview repairs would still go toward the school: part toward immediately necessary repairs, like the heating system, and the rest toward the process necessary to make a new-school business case, including architectural designs.

That would mean Broadview would not be on the board’s new-school priority list for this year. But that’s as it should be. It was highly unlikely that the province would have chosen Broadview this year as the only new school to be built in Ottawa, considering the last-minute nature of the push to get it onto the list. And this way, a new suburban school wouldn’t be bumped.

A key to the proposed plan is to sell the old technical school at 440 Albert St., a property that comprises almost two full (and very valuable) downtown city blocks. The sale of the land — expected to reap tens of millions of dollars — would be used to fund capital investment on urban area schools. Again, that’s a process that will take time, which could help cool the emotions aroused in all concerned.

The one downside is that if Broadview ends up on the new-build list in a year or two — which is the implied intention in the motion — that’ll be a very squeaky wheel getting nicely greased. What does that mean for school politics from now on? That the best-organized and loudest parents get their way, even if their school isn’t deemed the worst-off in the city? Perhaps.

But it’d be naive to think that pressure politics isn’t part of school board operations, even if it’s not ideal. At least this plan will see Broadview go through a more proper process for getting a new school, instead of muscling their way onto the list. (The lack of due process was ostensibly what Harder and MacLeod were upset about when they wrote the letter, though they chose a crude way of expressing it.)

Although the motion goes some way towards addressing today’s predicament, the most promising aspect of the plan is a directive to school board staff “to conduct a strategic review of all capital assets.” That means coming up with a list of existing schools and their problems, as well as surplus properties and what they might be worth on the open market.

It’s a discussion that is long overdue at the board. The province still has a responsibility to fund schools in Ottawa, but that funding is never enough to meet the demands of our growing community, and of our decaying inner-city schools. Additional solutions must be found.

If this motion, born under duress, isn’t the be-all and end-all to the current crisis, it could be the start of a new path to better schools for our children — no matter where they’re growing up.