01/30/2009

Ontario Public School Board Association Annual Public Education Symposium, Sheraton Centre Hotel, Toronto. January 30, 2009.
Doug Reycraft, AMO Past President and
Mayor of Southwest Middlesex
January 30, 2009 
Sheraton Centre Hotel, Toronto 
Ontario Public School Board Association Annual Public Education Symposium
Moving Beyond Irreconcilable Differences

(Check Against Delivery)

I appreciate the invitation to be part of this Public Education Symposium presented by the Ontario Public School Boards Association and especially to be part of a workshop that is focused on partnerships between school boards and municipalities.  

I’d like to begin by telling you a little about the Association of Municipalities of Ontario that I’m representing here today.  

AMO’s mandate, simply put, is to serve and advocate for the municipalities of the province. Membership is voluntary and over 420 of the 444 municipalities belong to the Association. The most notable of those that don’t belong is Toronto, which chose to withdraw several years ago and has its own working relationship with the province. Part of the challenge in meeting that mandate stems from the wide diversity of municipalities themselves. We include large single tier cities, both tiers of regional and county governments, sparsely populated and scattered northern communities, manufacturing centres and farm communities. The issues and interests of the 444 are as diverse as the municipalities themselves. Which is not unlike school boards,except that there are more of us.  

Our directors are elected annually and each is part of one of seven caucuses. We have a rural caucus, a small urban caucus, a county caucus, a regional and single tier caucus, a large urban caucus, a northeast caucus and a northwest caucus.  The chairs of each caucus, along with the President and Secretary-Treasurer who are elected for two-year terms, form the executive of the association. The caucus system guarantees that all types of municipalities and all geographic regions of the province are represented on the board and on the executive.

Despite differences in size, location, issues and needs across municipalities, AMO members keep in focus that our ultimate goal is to create sustainable municipalities. And, that we are better able to achieve this by identifying ways to agree to work towards them – in all of which, good communication is the key.

Our advocacy covers a wide range of issues.  Affordable housing and homelessness, accessibility, waste management, brownfields, energy generation, distribution and conservation, environmental assessments, water and wastewater management, property assessment and taxation, land ambulance, long-term care for seniors, land use planning, emergency planning, immigration, and public health are just some the issues before AMO.  We rely on a long list of task forces and working groups, all consisting of elected and appointed municipal officials who volunteer their time, to research and review issues as they come forward and to develop recommendations for consideration by our Board of Directors. 

AMO’s executive meets monthly with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and various other cabinet ministers and government officials to discuss proposed changes in legislation and regulation that will affect municipalities. These meetings occur as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding that was reached several years ago and is now enshrined in legislation. The MOU process is beneficial to both sides of the table.  It helps the province avoid unintended consequences to planned initiatives and gives municipalities the opportunity to obtain advance notice and put forward their concerns before the proposals become public. It also provides a regular forum for us to present our case for changes in legislation and regulation to the appropriate provincial officials.  The MOU table sometimes also presents the opportunity for collaboration on issues of common concern that require the attention of the federal government. Ultimately, it results in better informed government decisions.

Last fall, AMO concluded a lengthy negotiation with the province called the Provincial Municipal Fiscal and Service Delivery Review. It involved a thorough analysis of the fiscal relationship between our two orders of government and spanned a period of over two years. The Review was the result of an extensive lobbying campaign. The campaign drew attention to the fact that Ontario municipalities were being required to use property taxes to pay for certain health and social programs that were funded by provincial revenues in every other province in Canada.   Most property taxpayers are surprised to learn that part of their property tax dollar was used to pay for disability pensions, drug benefits for the disabled and people on welfare, social housing, land ambulance, long-term care homes for seniors, and public health.  In fact, of the over $18 billion collectively paid in property taxes, about $6 billion is forwarded to school boards and about $3 billion was used to pay for health and social programs.  The consequences of this fiscal arrangement were two-fold. Ontarians pay the highest property taxes in North America and municipalities have been unable to make much needed investments in their infrastructure.

As a result of the Fiscal Review, the province will assume the costs of services now being funded by municipalities that will total about $676 million per year net by 2011 and $1.5 billion per year when the agreement is fully phased by 2018. This upload will allow us to increase our investment in infrastructure and to begin addressing an infrastructure deficit estimated to require an additional $6 billion per year for the next 10 years.

I have elaborated on the MOU and the Fiscal Review this afternoon just to give some idea of the nature of AMO’s work.

AMO has also established two other corporations that serve our members. Local Authority Services (LAS) operates under its own Board of Directors consisting of elected and appointed municipal officials. LAS offers bulk procurement programs for natural gas and electricity to our members. It also organizes energy conservation programs and offers other programs and services that help municipalities stretch the property taxpayer dollar even further.

The Municipal Employer Pension Centre of Ontario (MEPCO) was established just last year as a separate non-profit corporation. Its mandate is to support AMO’s appointees to the two corporations established by the province when it devolved the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), of which many of your employees are members, and to give advice to the AMO Board of Directors on pension-related issues. MEPCO’s board includes municipal representatives and private sector persons with pension expertise.  It is financed through voluntary contributions from municipal employers who have staff enrolled in OMERS.  The legislation that created the OMERS Sponsors Corporation and Administration Corporation vested municipalities and all OMERS employers with significant obligations and responsibilities. Our members have determined that our appointees need access to expert independent legal and actuarial advice and MEPCO has been established to provide that. AMO is currently the only member and funder of MEPCO but the corporation has been structured to provide for other members, including organizations like OPSBA, to join.  

Enough about AMO. The topic for this workshop – School Boards and Municipalities – a Marriage of Convenience - is a fitting analogy. And I thank Julia for suggesting it.  

Partnerships between boards and municipalities, and between schools and municipalities, are not new.  There are some great examples of partnerships formed years ago that have worked well to the mutual benefit of both - and the communities both serve.  I will talk about some of those of which I know through my own experience as an educator, a municipal leader and my discussions with other municipal leaders across the province.

What does seem to be changing is the interest in developing these partnerships. And that interest seems to be growing and coming from a number of different directions.  I heard the Premier speak last fall about his interest in greater attention being given to developing schools as ‘community hubs’. People for Education in their 2008 Annual Report stated “In both rural and urban areas, schools have the capacity to act as thriving hubs for their communities.” The report elaborated on several examples, many of which can be found in various locations around the province. In a report titled “A Prescription for Change” released this month by People for Education, “a new vision for schools that reinvents them as assets to the whole community and as places where families, children and young people can find everything from education to health centres to community kitchens” is recommended. And this follows the 2005 joint policy statement on Community Use of Schools by the Ministries of Health Promotion, Education, and Tourism and Recreation which acknowledged the role of schools as community hubs.

I noted that OPSBA, in its submission to the Declining Enrolment Working Group last September, spoke to promoting the school as a community hub and specifically mentioned public libraries, adult literacy services, child care centres and community centres as candidates for partnerships.

I expect that every one of you can point to good examples of school-community partnerships that have worked well in your area.  I’ll mention a few of which I’m aware.

I live in Glencoe, a village of about 2000 people.  The high school there has for years enjoyed the benefit of tennis courts that were constructed by a local tennis club and the municipality on unused school property in the 1970’s.  The courts are still used by students during the day and the community during evenings and weekends.  The only problem I can recall resulted from a windbreak the club planted to shelter the players.  As the windbreak grew taller and denser, it became a screen behind which some students engaging in inappropriate behaviour could hide. The windbreak on the side facing the school has long since been removed.

About ten years ago, a community group interested in establishing an Employment Resource Centre in Glencoe approached the high school principal and the board to see if a partnership could be established.  With funding from the federal government, which was then responsible for funding such facilities, an ERC was constructed as an addition to the school.  It includes a computer lab that is used by classes and individual students during the school day and by the ERC to offer classes for adults during evenings.  The municipality provides an annual grant to assist with the operating costs of the centre.

When the school principal came to our council looking for help to purchase instruments needed to introduce a music program into the curriculum, we dipped into our reserves and provided the $25,000 she needed.

Last year the principal of the same high school approached the municipality about using the local hockey arena in the school’s program.  The request led to a reciprocal agreement through which the school has free use of the arena - and the swimming pool, soccer fields and fastball diamonds owned by the municipality.  The community enjoys affordable rental rates for the use of the school’s gymnasium, meeting rooms and hallways (which are used by walkers during winter) through the Community Use of Schools Funding.  The school shares the funding it receives with the municipality to offset some of the maintenance cost of the recreation facilities.  The school is a busy place every evening of the week and sometimes on weekends.

In Strathroy, where the public and Catholic secondary schools share the same campus and building, the municipality has built a twin-pad arena so that the recreation facility and schools can share the same parking lot.  

In Plattsville in Oxford County and in Grand Bend, there are public libraries in elementary schools.

There are about 1800 schools in the province that have child care centres in them or attached.

There are 359 Ontario Early Years Centres located in schools.

There are Best Start Programs in schools across the province.

123 schools have Parenting and Family Literacy Centres.

In Toronto, there are 30 city-funded police constables in schools, not to be enforcers, but to develop positive interactions between youth and police.

Many school boards have joint-use or cost-sharing arrangements related to green space and playground equipment.

Like every ‘marriage of convenience’, the success of a relationship between a board and its municipality (or in most cases its municipalities), has the potential to be very successful or very unsuccessful.  And like every ‘marriage of convenience’, success will depend on the desire and determination of the partners to make it work.  

I’m not suggesting that establishing and maintaining a successful relationship between a board and its municipalities is an easy challenge. Julia mentioned that the Greater Essex Board represents an area that has 10 municipal councils. In Thames Valley, the board’s area covers London and the two-tier counties of Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford. There are 28 municipal councils in that district. I don’t have the answer to how a school board and its municipalities develop a practical and effective means to communicate when that many municipalities are involved. But I believe we owe it to the taxpayers and citizens we both represent to try. And success will depend on how much we want it to work – just like a marriage of convenience.

There is very little communication between school boards and municipalities judging by discussions I’ve had with my colleagues across the province.  There is more between schools and councils and perhaps that’s where the focus on partnership building needs to be placed.

Before I close I do want to say a few words about a specific issue on which communication needs to improve.  It’s the process used to close a school.

OPSBA, in that same submission to the Declining Enrolment Working Group I earlier referenced said: “The most successful closure processes occur when the board is proactive and gets out early in its consultation with and involvement of communities, rather that waiting to issue a formal report on school accommodation.  Boards have found that engaging and empowering local communities to find local solutions gives everyone ownership of the outcome and the achievement.”  I agree wholeheartedly.

When a community and a council first learn of the recommendation of a school board’s administration that a school be closed from a media report of a board meeting, it shocks everyone. Immediately adversarial positions between the community and the board are taken and a consensus becomes impossible.  Most people find it very difficult to accept a solution imposed on them when they are unaware of the problem.  Councils and communities need to be made aware of the problem and the options and to be meaningfully engaged in consultation before conclusions are reached.  Failure to do that will make it very difficult to develop partnerships and positive relationships in the future.  It’s far more likely to lead to “irreconcilable differences” between the marriage partners.  And that outcome represents a failure to serve appropriately the same people we both represent.

As someone who has been active in education in one way or another for most of my life, it seems to me that communication between school boards and municipal councils and community use of schools was easier when we were both smaller.  As we moved to county school boards in 1969 and then to district boards in 1998, the walls of the silos became thicker and higher. We need together to find a way to knock them down because either of us working in isolation too often leads to negative outcomes for the other.  Perhaps a working relationship between OPSBA and AMO is the place to begin.  If there is interest in that, let’s get started.