Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Proposals, Options, and Understanding the Reasons - Fort McMurray Public School District

I am many things in my world, as we all are. I am a blogger, a writer, an employee, a dog owner - but first and foremost, the job I take most seriously, is being a parent to the Intrepid Junior Blogger. That is a role I do not take lightly, and therefore anything that touches her life also touches mine, and anything that has the potential to impact her catches my attention - as the recent changes proposed with the Fort McMurray Public School District have certainly done.

The IJB has attended schools in the FMPSD since kindergarten. This is the only school experience I have had as a parent, and it differs from my own in that I spent twelve years in the Catholic education system in Saskatoon. I realize that my experience may not be vast, but it is deep because I have been involved in her schools since she started attending them, volunteering and serving on parent council. I have been, and continue to be, intensely proud of our facilities and our educators, and I have even had the pleasure of writing about the history of the FMPSD. Currently, though, I find myself gravely concerned about the proposed changes to deal with an unexpected budget deficit.

There have been two changes proposed, both controversial but for different reasons. The first involves reconfiguring schools such as École McTavish to have them accommodate more grades, eg, have McTavish become a 7-12 instead of the current 7-9. The second proposal has been to compress the school week, with each week becoming a Monday-Thursday affair with Friday off (except in the case of holiday Mondays in which case Friday would be a full educational day). Both of these proposals have been met with heated debate and concern, but before we even debate the merits of these ideas I think we need to do something else. I think we need to understand how we got here.

I'm not a big fan of deciding solutions before we even know how we got into a problem. I think in order to divine a path forward we need to understand how the path led us to where we are today. I do not feel this has happened in this instance. I do not understand how an anticipated 2-million dollar deficit became a 4.4 million dollar one. I know blame has been placed on several things, particularly on low enrolment (a bit of a shocker given the overfilled state of many of our schools), but I don't think we even understand how that has happened. Why are 40% of the students in the Catholic system not Catholic? Why have they chosen to attend those schools instead of the public? Without understanding the causes as parents how can we choose the way forward?

Blame for that low enrolment has been placed on location proximity, the concept that students will attend schools that are close. In elementary school this may be true, although in my own case I drove the IJB to school for 6 years so she could attend the school we felt best suited her needs, so that is not true in all cases. Once students hit junior high and high school, though, I believe the decision is not made due to proximity, but programming. I, and I suspect most parents of students that age, will send our kids across the city if the school offers the programming they want. Could it be that our low enrolment numbers have nothing to do with proximity and everything to do with programming?

And once we have some understanding of root causes then let's look at the proposed options. If it isn't proximity but programming that affects choice of school could a compressed week exacerbate the problem by leading parents and students to choose schools that have a longer week? (The Catholic system now operates on a 5 day/4 day schedule) Could we in fact be looking at lowering enrolment numbers further by choosing this option? And what about the other impacts of a compressed week, the ones I have heard from parents who worry about the impact on their own work schedules, or older children left to their own devices for too long? What about the impacts mentioned by the educators who contacted me (anonymously, in case anyone asks), concerns about this proposal leading to the loss of educational assistants who will see their wages and benefits diminish? What about those who teach children with learning disabilities who already find consistency and continuity a challenge with a 2-day weekend? What about the concerns about lengthening the school day to ensure we have the required number of educational hours when studies show attention span is finite? (and some of our schools already have an 8 am start, so lengthening the day even by 10 minutes has a significant impact on younger children)

I think we need to ask some very pertinent questions, like:

What will be the true impact of this proposal in the financial sense? What exactly is the cost saving? If it only saves a minimal amount but has maximum negative impact is that a reasonable option to pursue?

What will be the true impact on students in the educational sense? Will this impact their grades, their ability to function, and their educational experience? 

What will be the true impact on future enrolment? Are we making a decision that could in fact cause more harm by decreasing enrolment? I know that for myself if I feel this has a negative impact on my child I may consider changing school systems - or, once she reaches high school, leave the community entirely to seek a school that offers the programming she wants. Will others face this decision, too? And what about parents moving here - will they see this as a reason to not enrol their children in the FMPSD?

What is the true impact of this in the long term? Is the intent to have school eventually return to a five-day week or will this become the new norm for our community?

Then let's talk about reconfiguring schools, another issue of grave concern for me. McTavish, for instance, is clearly not designed to hold another three grades of students. This option will mean bringing in portables and filling an already busting-at-the-seams school even further. The strain on resources will be profound, I think, and it worries me deeply. I think we need to ask some serious questions about this proposal too, like:

What will the true impact be of introducing another three grades in terms of changing the school demographics and feel?

What will the true impact be of having students of vastly different developmental levels in such close proximity? Are we creating a culture within the school where issues will be magnified and intensified? And will the school be able to handle those given the increased numbers and demand on resources?

What will the true impact be on education if the school starts to see an increase in concerns over behavioural issues and discipline concerns created by overcrowding and disparity in developmental levels?

I attended one of the town hall meetings hosted by the FMPSD and heard from many parents who attended others. While it was great to be able to express our concerns I did not feel my questions were answered, and I did not feel that I had any fundamental understanding of how we arrived where we are today - a 4.4 million dollar budget deficit. I did not feel that I fully understood the impacts of either of the proposals, and I found, and continue to find, this unsettling. While we got to have our say and provide our feedback I did not feel that I received enough information to even intelligently speak to the issues, which is why I reached out to other parents and educators for their thoughts. I do not think decisions like this should be made in haste, despite the sense that this is a crisis situation (and again one needs to ask how we ended up in a crisis that did not exist in this magnitude one year ago).

There are many who have been using this issue for their own political advancement, and I reject that soundly as I do not appreciate using an issue that directly affects thousands of students, current and future, to gain or lose votes. This is NOT a political issue, and not some game. This is an issue with a direct impact on thousands of children and adults in this community, and an even wider reaching impact in that these proposed changes could change how those thinking of moving to this community view our educational system. If these changes are perceived to negatively impact education through the FMPSD then will that deter some from choosing to move here and bringing their families? I am afraid the answer might be yes. This is of deep concern to me as an advocate for community, because I want families to move here secure in the knowledge that the experience they will have here is the same, or hopefully even better, than the one they would have anywhere else. This community can already be a "tough sell" due to our issue with image problems in national media - will this issue, now that it has hit that media too, hurt us even further when we are trying to recruit doctors and other professionals? Will it deter other families from making the choice to reside here?

So, in the end I suppose I have many more questions than answers. I am very concerned for the future of the FMPSD, and for the students - in particular my own Intrepid Junior Blogger. She has expressed her own concerns about her school becoming larger, about the social impacts of bringing in older students of a very different developmental stage. And when my daughter speaks, I listen, because in the end this is her education, and her school experience. My primary concern is her future, and when I have more questions than answers I am uneasy in my ability to help her determine what that future will be. I suppose in the end all I can do is continue to ask those questions and hope that we will not become proof of the adage "act in haste, repent at leisure" by reacting to a crisis without even fully understanding how it became one. I think as parents we deserve to know how this happened, and not just be allowed to have our say but be allowed a fundamental understanding of the true impact this will  have on our most precious resource in this community. In the end the most precious resource we have here in Fort McMurray isn't bitumen - it is our children.


  1. Questions need to asked about management at the Fort McMurray Public School Board.

  2. I totally agree with the above comment. We as the advocates for our children and our schools need to ask how they suddenly came to such a deficit? Was there mismanagement of public funds? Shouldn't our Board of Trustees be asking and finding answers to these questions and take the necessary steps to rectify the situation?