Russ Ford's Blog

Democracy's Slippery Slope; Why Vincent Massey Should Concern All of Us



Two weeks ago I asked why have not successive governments reversed the education reforms enacted by the former government of Mike Harris. In opposition they strongly opposed them as did anyone who had any knowledge or interest in education.

The answer is simple. Harris did the heavy lifting for successive governments. Harris centralized decision making authority within the bureaucracy at Queen's Park No government will readily give up power and that power shift is at the root of the problem at Vincent Massey.

School boards now exist as long as they do the bidding of the provincial government. If they don't the province can and has dissolved the boards and appointed its own trustee to perform school board functions.

School board officials say they have no choice to close Vincent Massey because Queens Park has issued the order. The school board is irrelevant to the decision yet it is the public face of the closure. There was no one from the Ministry of Education present at the public meeting with parents. There is no public accountability to the public from the real decision makers.

Education is not alone. It is the direction the government is going and it goes by the name "systems transformation." While there are many aspects to this agenda and some are very positive, at its core, systems transformation is about centralizing control and eliminating public accountability. Democracy can be irritating after all and it certainly slows things down.

Yes, I know you hear a lot about accountability. But let's be clear. Accountability when used by government does not mean greater accountability from government. It means greater accountability to government from organizations like LAMP that receive government funding. A subtle but signicant difference.

We elect school board trustees and we as a collective have the power to unelect them. Now we can't even find out the names of ministry staff who are in reality making the decisions.

In health the school board equivalent are the local health integration networks or LHINs There is at least no pretext of democracy with them. Their board is appointed by the provincial government. No elections needed.

There is really nothing local about the LHINs. In a province as diverse as Ontario all of the fourteen have the same strategic directions which are the directions given to them by the province.

The fight LAMP had over retaining community control of speech and language services is exactly the same fight that parents of Vincent Massey are now having. Both are examples of where systems thinking results in decisions that are completely wrong headed on the ground. Both put the needs of the system ahead of the needs of children.

The province has recently announced that union negotiations with teachers will now be done centrally. The titular employer of the teachers, the school boards, won't really even be at the table.

Systems transformation is arguably the most significant change there has ever been to the provision of government services. Yet there is no public discourse It just continues as a life unto itself. I have had discussions with various people in government around how the foci of power is being taken away from communities. Their response is usually the same. It is necessary for systems transformation, end of discussion.

I am confident that Vincent Massey will be saved just as speech and language services were saved. To do otherwise is just so wrong that even the systems planners must see the error of their ways.

But agreeing to keep Vincent Massey open will be regarded as an exception It will not result in the reevaluation of the model. It will not result in a rethink around the closing of schools and it definitely will not become a venue for public debate

There is clearly no place for the public in the systems transformation agenda. I know some would argue that if this is so we might as well do away with school boards. That is exactly the wrong direction to take.

While this agenda has stripped away any notion of community control and decision making, school boards are institions of democracy. Once they are gone all decisions will be left to the ministry and there will be no public accountability at all.

As long as school boards are in place there is at least the potential of denmocratic reform. Let's hope it starts at Vincent Massey. I know those in the provincial government likely see our victory over retaining community control for speech and language services as a mere speed bump It really has done nothing to reshape their consumption of power.

So when we win at Vincent Massey let's not settle for keeping the day care centre. As important and as vital to our community it's retention is, let's push the envelope further. Let's pull out the roots so other communities do not have to go through the fight that parents were engaged in during the speech and language fight or what they are now going through at Vincent Massey.

Let's fight for democracy I think it is worth it. 

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