Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Interesting times over at the Edmonton Public School Board. EPSB superintendent Edgar Schmidt recently stated he will be leaving his position at the end of summer. And just yesterday he was in the news again, this time to announce that two suburban schools just opened in 2010 are overcrowded and will be relocating their grade 8 and 9 students next fall.

The grade shuffle at Esther Starkman and Johnny Bright schools does not appear to have any ulterior motive other than the schools are at capacity and something has to give. Changing to a more customary K-6 elementary school would probably have been a better choice, except that closing three consecutive grades would be considered a school closure under provincial law, and would automatically trigger a full review with all the hilarity that ensues. Even if parents and community were onside (which would require a track record of trust and partnership), a closure review could not be completed within the current school year. I wonder if they can legally close grade 7 next year - maybe.

Looking at each school's profile, enrollment is highest in the entry level grades (kindergarten through grade 2) which means the schools are serving a lot of young families, and both schools will easily remain full without junior high students. And here is the point: poor research and planning by the school board caused them to underestimate the elementary-level population and demand in these neighbourhoods, opening the schools to more grades than they should have, which in turn is causing the current messy reorganization. The census age breakdown and projections in these neighbourhoods (readily available online) would have shown that these two new schools could have been originally designated as K-6. This might have not been popular for the grade 7-9 students in those neighbourhoods, but now those same kids are having to relocate in the middle of their junior high career. Unchecked urban sprawl is a major factor, plus the provincial funding formula that penalizes perceived unused space may have encouraged EPSB to pack in as many grades as possible from day one, but I'll leave those issues out of this discussion for now. I will say that young families shopping for a house may want to consider communities that already have schools. Adequate planning and prioritizing student stability ahead of utilization rates might have avoided this disruptive scramble.

A couple of examples of school board ineptitude. When closing schools, the administration puts together their evidence including population statistics and projections. In the two closure processes I was involved with, the EPSB numbers were way off - the neighbourhood they said was in decline has grown and revitalized in the past few years. The bad data is due either to incompetence or was intentionally massaged in order to help build the administration case for closure (probably a little of both). Another one from personal experience is the ongoing mismanagement of the Spanish program my daughters are in. EPSB's failure to extend the program past junior high is resulting in a high attrition rate after grade six as families lose faith in the future of the program. This is despite strong and increasing entry-level enrollment. In contrast, the Edmonton Catholic Spanish program started the same year now has double the number of students as EPSB (in a district less than half the size), thanks mainly to planning and support. Calgary Public's Spanish program was started about the same time, and is now almost ten times the size as ours, because of proper planning and support. Both programs will graduate grade 12s this year, while EPSB continues to wait for sufficient demand.

The Edmonton Public School Board has developed a stagnant bureaucratic culture that rewards subservience and discourages initiative. In this way it is like any organization that doesn't go through some kind of renewal from time to time: administrators don't work or think too hard, and never challenge or get challenged. All the negative civil service stereotypes apply. I doubt employees who are used to hustling in a more dynamic and entrepreneurial work environment would have been surprised by enrollment numbers that were obvious from the demographics years ago, or would sit around waiting for success while the competition is out there making it happen. There is a tough provincial budget coming up and teachers are on the chopping block, but I think we could save money more judiciously by cutting a few layers of fat from school board middle management instead. I doubt we would notice the impact.

[One other tangent to the story is this little euphemism from the EPSB website: "Students attending the school, who live outside the attendance area or are non-resident to our District, will not be able to stay at the school." The non-resident to our District part means Catholic students, of which there are a couple of hundred to be displaced. It would have been more fair if declared Catholic students had been grandfathered, where those already enrolled allowed would be allowed to stay at their schools. But I think EPSB is justified in not wanting to pay to educate students whose families' taxes are supporting the Edmonton Catholic School Division. Having a separate Catholic schools system is a particular Canadian historical legacy which often results in inefficient duplication (in buildings, transportation, staff, just about everything). One interesting aspect of Edmonton Public's district of choice is the emergence of religious alternative programs within the public system. I sort of disagree with this under a general separation of church and state philosophy, but on the other hand it might pave the way for an eventual merging of two government-funded school systems without either one losing its purpose or identity. A unified school system would at least avoid some of the ugliness of ostracizing a group of children based on criteria that would otherwise be illegal.]

As the most recent episode of administration bungling unfolds, Edgar Schmidt announced his retirement from the district effective August 31st. I've spoken to him once in person and a couple of times from a microphone, and followed his time as superintendent off an on; he seems like a decent and intelligent person committed to doing his job well. But he is a company man. He became superintendent in 2007 in the wake of the dismissal of his predecessor Lyall Thomson. Mr. Thomson was an outsider, recommended by a third-party executive search firm, hired and then promptly fired without any public explanation. The majority of the board of trustees who fired him were largely old-guard career educators. Rumour had it that Thomson wanted to do things a little differently, which clashed with the EPSB culture in 2007 as it would today. Schmidt was promoted from within at least in part to ensure no more challenges to that culture.

The current crop of trustees has been markedly different from previous boards. By and large they are more responsive, communicative and consultative than before. While the adminstration culture has not changed much, the board that governs it has, and consequently EPSB has been able to make positive progress on a lot of important issues. But the future direction of the public school system is uncertain. There are at least four sitting trustees who will not be running for re-election in 2013, including two or three who are more on the progressive end of the spectrum. Will EPSB continue building bridges with city and provincial counterparts to value schools and education in the context of our overall society, or will it revert to its recent history of isolated, dissent-intolerant, school-closing reactionaries?

This board will decide who the next superintendent will be shortly before the election in October. The next superintendent could make all the difference: a visionary with strong leadership skills could reinvigorate the public school district. Without a doubt this person needs to come from outside the existing administration to make a real impact, maybe even from another profession entirely. It was bold of Edmonton voters in 2010 to elect a number of trustee candidates from outside the system, based on their ideas and their passion. Look how far those outsiders have run with their mandate. Now it's time for them return the favour and shuffle things up with a bold new superintendent with a fresh perspective, who can breathe new life and energy into an organization that sorely needs it.