River John Presentation to CCRSB Board May 20th.

For anyone following the River John challenge to stay open. Here was the presentation on May 20th to the Board. I watched hardworking members of this community spend hours trying to create a document that would speak to the members of the CCRSB. The Board votes on June 11th whether or not to grant an extra year as requested by the Minister.

Presentation to the CCRSB Regarding the River John Consolidated School

May 20, 2014

The River John SOS (Support Our School) Committee is a group of committed parents, teachers and community members determined to keep the River John Consolidated School (RJCS) open. We would like to thank members of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board for giving us this opportunity to speak to the progress our Committee has made during this last year – and to address some of the barriers we face as we move forward.

Before addressing the various topics provided below, however, we would like to be clear about our approach to this important subject. The community of River John has been and remains very clear that closure of the River John Consolidated School by the CCRSB is not ever going to be acceptable. In several meetings over the past two years, the Support Our School Committee has been directed by parents and other residents to explore every alternative before sending our children to ‘receiving’ schools after June 2015.

We are very aware that the CCRSB, like its equivalents across Nova Scotia, is mandated strictly to adhere to the Education Act. Its primary role is to deliver the public school curriculum to our students and to keep their safety in mind while adhering to a budget and keeping matters like social justice and continual change in view. For the most part, and appreciating the limitations placed on the efforts of staff and elected representatives, we feel the CCRSB does what it was created to do. Our comments below, therefore, should not be interpreted as being confrontational.

River John is inspired by the high ideals that the CCRSB has already expressed.

CCRSB MISSION STATEMENT

We develop independent lifelong learners in a student-centered environment with high expectations for all. We particularly agree with the Belief Statement (one of many) Learning is a partnership among home, school, and community. In light of this, we want to invite the Board to engage with us in finding a new way to keep the school in River John open.

Overview

Over the past year, much has been made of using the excess capacity of the school building to create a Community ‘Hub’. In some parts of the world, this Hub idea seems to work well and appears to provide a neat, within-the-box potential solution that could be applied almost anywhere.

As we sit here tonight, however, we all share a high level of confusion over what a ‘Hub’ could look like in River John. Beyond seeking prospective tenants consistent with the current use of the building lie administrative issues such as building security; capital maintenance and improvement and property management, including leasing and the collection of rent. Further, there does not seem to be a settled position on whether preferred prospective tenants would be commercial enterprises or quasi-government (i.e., agencies) or medical (or other) service providers.

The parents, teachers and community members of River John have rejected the business-style Community Hub model for our school. In its place, we recommend building an Educational/Community Centre. In the case of River John, we would use our heritage and rich past to develop an interactive, cultural heritage learning site and wellness centre set inside the school with our shipbuilding past as the focus. We will make it as green and environmentally friendly as possible. We are already in the beginning stages of linking curriculum outcomes. We are excited about this! This includes using the existing library as an interactive learning centre and museum (see the floor plan, attached to this document). We would also utilize the RJ community Library which is within a 5 minute walk from the school. This is a great opportunity for students to get out in the fresh air, learn about their surroundings and history and it also helps to support the community's existing library. With a building that has good bones and good space and a vision for a community school with Place- Based Learning as a focus, this out-of-the-box idea has the potential to transform the RJCS into an educational/geographical centre rather than a business-oriented model.

The people of River John therefore agree with and look forward to working with Minister Casey’s recent expression of a new set of ‘criteria and parameters’ that would characterize a successful plan for the alternate use of excess space in a school building. She said, "The new process will include criteria to guide school boards and community groups in their consideration of hub/joint- use/community school facilities, with student safety, cost neutrality to the school board, and compatible use as the primary elements. The criteria are to be developed by a team of Department and School Board officials representing the eight boards. It is expected to be in place by September 2014."

THE PARENTS

We believe there is such a level of uncertainty regarding the future of the RJCS that several families have already decided to send their children to other area schools, not including those choosing French Immersion. Although other reasons for choosing different schools exist, we expect some parents will return their children to the RJCS if the threat of closure is removed. On a brighter note we do have a family with three children moving back to the area, specifically to send their children to RJCS. We think this is a testament to the high quality of education provided in this facility and should not be lost.

In the mother’s own words: "I didn’t get to go to RJ school but spent plenty of time begging my Dad to... I guess I craved the stability of not switching schools with every move and never knowing anyone... so I’ve always planned to have it better for Cameron, be in the same school with the same kids throughout his childhood and the small school in my hometown where you can know the kids and the parents and the teachers more personally. It will be perfect. Hopefully it won’t be closed and change all that now".

On a similar but not identical topic, we think there is a burden being placed on the school busing system by parents whose children attend other area schools instead of the RJCS. This will bear further study, because some of the RJCS buses are going out of their way to connect students with buses serving other schools. This surely is already driving bus times and costs up while relieving parents from the obligation to transport their child(ren) to a non-RJCS school. Perhaps a study of the school transfer policy should require the burden of transportation be placed on families.

In reviewing the Identification Report, we noted a number of schools were in a condition similar to that of the RJCS. They were not considered for closure, we believe, primarily because they were not close enough to a receiving school to maintain the Board’s policy respecting travel time for students.

If you look closely at the bus travel times from River John to the proposed receiving schools, you would have to agree that the travel times for our students do not fall within the guidelines. (A request has been made to CCRSB operations services committee to provide bussing routes, stops and times between River John and the receiving schools. No response to date.)

THE BUILDING

Beyond the importance of operating the school building in River John is the matter of its capital upkeep – and the need for restoration. In the case of the River John Consolidated School, we are deeply concerned that the CCRSB has treated the building as a wasting asset. The CCRSB has not taken seriously the need to assure its usefulness in the long term.

We also understand the Municipality of the County of Pictou retains title to the building and property regardless of its use by the CCRSB as a school. This means that if the school were to close, the Municipality would have to decide whether to operate it or tear it down. Further study of viable alternatives is imperative here, including a decision on whether to undertake new capital project/refurbishment at some level of government.

Despite the good overall condition of the building, there are several areas that require immediate work – partly to honour the Board’s existing policy regarding student safety and security, and partly to make the building available for use in the coming years.

First, the roof needs to be replaced. Its original flat design was the least costly to build, but has proven to be very costly to keep tight. Internal damage has been done (and mostly repaired) in classrooms and the gymnasium floor. Students’ personal safety has frequently been threatened by waterlogged, falling ceiling tiles. The Board has estimated redesign and replacement of the roof at a potential cost of $200,000. (Reference September 2012 Impact Assessment Report)

Secondly, the parking lot and paved play space is in serious need of resurfacing. It has been a very long time since it was last repaired and now contains many deep potholes and broken areas.

In summary, we believe some capital refurbishment is required before the school/community can offer users a safe, secure and tight environment: to try and use a building that is not roof-tight and secure will not be successful. This, we believe, is a serious shortcoming that the CCRSB and Municipality need to address before our vision of a educational/geographical centre can proceed. This issue alone is of utmost importance to the continuation of the RJCS and the subsequent well-being of tomorrow’s River John.

FINANCIAL and STATISTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

In the Committee’s opinion, the Board has made an error in voting to close the River John Consolidated School. We now want to work with the Board to correct this serious mistake. As indicated earlier in this presentation, the future of the River John Consolidated School requires an open dialogue between all parties. The whole purpose of this exercise, on our part, is to secure the continued presence of the RJCS in our community as a strong educational/geographical centre. In order for us to accomplish our goal, we need the cooperation of the Board and its staff in responding to our requests for financial and other relevant information in a timely manner. The financial data received to date has proven to be useful to the Committee. However, it should not have taken 7 months for the Board to respond and then only because a Freedom of Information request was made.

According to the School Identification Report of February 2012, the costs of providing education to the students enrolled in the River John Consolidated School amounted to $77,037 for operations and $662,877 for wages and salaries. In the Impact Assessment Report of September 2012, an amount of $347,700 (small schools funding) was also identified as a loss to the School Board if RJCS closes. Based on these figures, the net cost to the Board would amount to $392,214. On a per student basis, this equates to $6,880.95. An analysis of the 2012 School Identification Report shows an average per student cost for the majority of elementary/junior high schools in excess of $7,800. From a financial perspective, it is therefore less costly to educate students in the RJCS than in most other elementary or junior high schools within the region. In addition, of the 61 schools we reviewed, only 10 schools had a per square foot infrastructure operating cost lower than that of RJCS. In light of these facts it is the opinion the River John Support Our School Committee, that there is no financial justification to close the RJCS.

At the Committee of the Whole meeting on May 7th, the term “revenue neutral” was used several times by Board members when talking about the Hub Model. For clarification purposes, we would like your definition of this term. As we understand it this means that two parties continued to provide the same funding while some responsibilities may have changed. It is a term often used by the Province when dealing with municipalities. If this meaning holds true, then the Board would provide the same level of funding for the RJCS educational/geographical centre as it does now for the school.

The projected enrollment figures provided in the Impact Assessment Report showed there would be a reduction in numbers from 66 to 64 students (-3%). In actuality, the enrollment has increased from 66 to 70 (+6%).

Schools are sacred havens of hope and {that} they represent the hope of all parents who want their children to do better and be better and that schools represent the hope of all children who have dreams of happiness and success.
Hope never grows old. It may even help keep us all young.
—As submitted to New Glasgow News by Board Member Ron Marks

We, the River John Support Our School Committee, started this campaign with HOPE. We continue to have HOPE. HOPE that the School Board will reconsider its decision respecting the RJCS and allow this facility to provide the same high quality education to future generations as it has done in the past.

THE CLOCK

At the time of confirmation by the CCRSB that the River John School would be reviewed for closure in June 2015, a clock started ticking. At the end of June 2013, we entered the summer while the Board took six weeks’ vacation. Then, as schools opened in September, a provincial election was called for early October. By the time the new government was elected and MLAs installed into new portfolios, there was only a brief time for legislative communication and work before the government rose for Christmas.

In late January our committee met with Mr. Bob Fowler to discuss the Review Process. We have since appeared in front of the Municipality of the County of Pictou and locally with the press and on radio and have been actively engaging the local population throughout the entire time. In short, we have been doing all we can, but are losing time due to events and decision timing beyond our control. We feel pressurized by the loss of time since the end of June 2013 and are concerned that any further delay in reaching consensus and commitment by our various partners (CCRSB, County of Pictou and Department of Education) may undo our best efforts.

SUMMARY

Part 1 – What we are doing

Meeting as a Committee to create plans and consider initiatives aimed at the development of an educational/geographical centre with a viable plan acceptable to the Board and the Department of Education. Some of the things we have already done are:

  • Meeting with the community to transmit progress and request direction.
  • Meeting with the County to confirm and strengthen their support.
  • Presentations to review process inquiry.
  • Consultation with other schools under review.

Part 2 – Requests for the Board

1. Stop the clock forever by rescinding the original motion made last year to close the school on June 30, 2015. Based on financial documents provided to us, there is no justification to close the school. The community values the school. See appendix for student school involvement and activities and concepts for future community programs and events. Busing to other schools is not in the best interest of our children, and it does not maintain the Boards policy respecting travel time for students.

Alternatively:

2. Vacate all the work that has gone before and place River John Consolidated School under the new review process approved in principle by the Minister. This will offer clarity to the truth and interpretation of the financial, demographic and capital facts necessary to a clear and good decision.

At the minimum:

3. Extend the closure deadline to June 2016 as formally requested by the Minister of Education in her letter dated April 24th.

What we want the CCRSB to do (regardless of the above decision):

We invite you to help us to develop an interactive, Place-Based Learning centre drawn from River John’s shipbuilding past (see appendix page 9 and 10). Allow us to continue using the building for continuing education and community (after-hours) activities (see appendix page 11). A long list of community learning and recreational uses is under development by the SAC. Have CCRSB Identify the S.C.O.R.E registered pre-school program. Continue to bring in international/exchange students. Address the need for capital infusion to repair/replace necessary infrastructure. Several examples are provided.

  • Replace the roof with new materials and design to improve run-off.
  • Solar panels on the roof to generate electricity – sell to province.
  • Investigate a wind-power turbine system. o Install heat-trapping windows seal and insulate, insulated doorways (entrance foyer) and fire-retardant blinds.
  • Install touch-sense taps in washrooms to conserve heated water.
  • Install a circulation fans in the gymnasium to recycle heat.
  • Grant permission to the community to assist in necessary small and large repair and capital projects. Provide at least a share of the necessary capital to refurbish the RJCS for long-term, supplementary use.

Conclusion

Whether the Board feels responsible for the future of River John as a community or not, the truth is that by closing the RJCS without full effort to revitalize, repair and refurbish it, River John’s future as a community is definitely at stake. We do not think this important decision should rest with a school board’s defence of a few dollars of capital and future operating costs when some new thinking might provide a clear – and better – alternative. The community is working to grow its population and needs the partnership of the CCRSB to make history here in River John. Please join us in this important work.

Respectfully submitted, The River John Support our School Committee