Once again the public, and private, discussions about the closing of a Peterborough high school have sunk into anecdote and vitriol. Virtually all of the discussion surrounds loyalties—neighbourhood, school, alumni—or mythical nostalgia. As the final decision by the publically elected Board at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB) approaches, it is time to refocus the discussion on financial and economic realities.
Before addressing these issues, it is important consider the role of the Board and the role of its senior management. The Board is elected to see that the KPRDSB has the strategies, policies, facilities, finances, and administration are in place so that the organization—overseen by the senior managers it employs—can provide the best education possible given the resources. Importantly, the Board is responsible to its funders—property taxpayers (residential and business) in Peterborough and the taxpayers of Ontario. The Board’s senior administration must take these resources and deliver the required educational services. There is a clear distinction between the role of the publically elected Board and the role of the administrative staff it employs.
The Board now finds itself in a position where the facts show that there is declining enrolment in Peterborough high schools and more schools than are necessary to deliver its educational services. With very similar education services being delivered at the existing schools for several decades, it is difficult to argue that one fewer high school would put the Board in a position where it would be unable to fulfill its mandate.
In financial terms, declining high school enrolment and an abundance of property and facilities puts the Board in a position where it has the opportunity to consolidate its operations, sell some valuable property, and use the funds to deliver educational services, and, perhaps, provide taxpayers with some relief from ever-increasing educational property taxes.
After the contentious review process was completed, I was pleased to see that the Board added its offices to be part of the mix. With little commercial land available in the industrial parks in the City, the Board could sell its property (a value in the millions of dollars) in the industrial park and consolidate its operations in an existing high school. This is a creative response to a complex decision. However, after this creative financial option was offered by the Board, the pubic debate became increasingly entrenched in anything but the financial, economic, and administrative realities.
In economic terms, the issue centers on the future of PCVS. Beyond the issues of its property value (which is the lowest—according to Board’s own property evaluations—of all the properties being considered, and the least likely to lower education property taxes), the significance of the school in terms of its value to the community and its role in economic development were practically ignored. Many of the initiatives to renew and expand the infrastructures of the downtowns of Ontario communities are to increase, not decrease, the downtown’s population density. More importantly, a high school in the downtown represents a source of current and future creative talent.
Just over 100 kilometres from downtown Peterborough, at the University of Toronto, is an internationally recognized leader in economic development—Richard Florida. His research describes the significance of the "creative class" and its ability to interact at a social level in city cores as a key contributor to local economic growth. Even with him being an advisor on economic growth to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, it seems as though his message is more readily heard further away, rather than closer to home.
There is little doubt that a downtown high school contributes in many ways to the economic development of a city. I have yet to come across any evidence, from Richard Florida’s point of view, or any other approach to economic development that would suggest that removing a downtown school would contribute to a community’s economic development in a positive way.
Basically, as much as there are compelling, anecdotal and nostalgic arguments to close PCVS, there is little substance—financial, economic, or administrative—to the arguments. This must be recognized as the Board’s takes its decision.
Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to present this case in a ten minute presentation to the KPRDSB’s Accommodation Review Committee (ARC). After that presentation, I was given some feedback from a member of the committee that my presentation would have had more credibility if I had not been, "clearly," a PCVS alumnus and supporter.
On that point, I need to set the record straight. I did graduate from PCVS. However, I disliked high school immensely. In hindsight, my five years of high school were insignificant given my subsequent academic pursuits. The fact that those five years were spent at PCVS has nothing to with the case I am making. My position comes from my community and professional perspective, not a nostalgic view. I trust that the Board’s decision will be made in the same spirit.
[Contributed by PtboCanada's Tom Phillips Ph. D. Phillips is Economist & Sustainability Director - Greater Ptbo Innovation Cluster.]