NORTH BAY — While acknowledging a tumultuous relationship with the Near North District School Board, Karen Matthews says she is a concerned parent first and foremost.
The same goes for Heather Garbutt, with two children enrolled in the NNDSB.
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The two have teamed up again to write and forward a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce regarding the NNDSB's handling of return to school planning — a letter they also tweeted to Lecce and Premier Doug Ford. They are encouraging stakeholders of NNDSB to forward the letter to elected officials or write and send one of their own.
Garbutt, a candidate for the 2018 public school board trustee election was one of education advocacy group Ready or Not's endorsed candidates — a group founded by Matthews.
"I opened a survey that warned once an option was selected, I may not be able to alter my choice 'for a lengthy amount of time,' and then realized it was not anonymous so if I answered 'no,' because the Board has yet to release a plan, my child will not necessarily have a spot," says Matthews. "The survey was altered at some point between its release Tuesday and Sunday, and that leaves me questioning the transparency and ability of the Board. Again."
Asked what most spurred the letter to Lecce, Matthews says, "I will not gamble on my child’s health and safety without knowing what awaits him and so I did not fill out the survey."
In the letter, Matthews and Garbutt ask Lecce to "step in and take over administration of the Board; it is time. The NNDSB seems to have learned little from the special advisors’ report or the Ombudsman’s report."
They observe, "If the Board cannot make a reopening plan that can accommodate every student in the Board safely (the onus is on them, after all), then they should not make any plan whatsoever."
The two maintain the board's process is "manipulative and anything but transparent."
A request for comment from the Near North District School Board was not returned before the publishing deadline.
The letter is posted in its entirety below:
Good morning Honourable Minister Lecce,
Thank you for the work you are doing for our students in Ontario during these unprecedented circumstances. This must be a very intense and challenging time for you.
I am writing to you with grave concerns about the Near North District School Board. As you are possibly already aware there have been long-standing concerns surrounding this Board’s practices - ones which resulted in almost a dozen complaints to the Ontario Ombudsman regarding their school closure decision in the Fall of 2017. At the conclusion of the investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman, fourteen recommendations were made to the Board; these recommendations addressed the Board’s transparency and accountability - or lack thereof. Subsequently, special advisors to your Ministry were dispatched to North Bay to observe the Board, meet with members of the public, and make recommendations. The advisors’ report stipulates, “The mandate also included a requirement that we engage collaboratively with the Near North District School Board, its staff, students, parents, and community members to explore opportunities to improve governance, human resources practices, financial accountability and transparency and to ensure student safety and success at the board”. As you can see, lack of transparency is a recurring problem.
Even in the midst of these extraordinary times, the board continues to surprise us - most recently with a parent "survey." Parents received an email on Friday, July 24th indicating that the Board would be issuing a survey and asking for our input. Four days later on Tuesday, July 28th, we received a survey that asked for information that would readily identify us and our children to the Board by asking us to fill in our name and contact info and to complete one for each student in our household. This survey asked whether or not we would send our kids to school and, if so, whether or not we would send them by bus. There was no information provided on what safety protocols would be in place to allow parents to decide, our answers were limited to yes or no. The email itself indicated that once a parent/guardian opted for one choice, they, “may not be able to alter this choice for a lengthy period of time”. Now the board is sharing results of the survey in the press and exploiting the fact that ~20% of parents won't send their kids back; fewer kids means many of the Board’s problems are solved. The survey wasn’t about how best to protect students, it was about finding shortcuts to give the illusion of safe learning environments. Zero transparency, once again.
I am asking you to step in and take over administration of the Board; it is time. The NNDSB seems to have learned little from the special advisors’ report or the Ombudsman’s report. I have confirmed with a lawyer that a survey is not a legally binding contract - it is not binding because it was not disclosed as being so, and it is not a contract as there was no consideration making it so. If the Board cannot make a reopening plan that can accommodate every student in the Board safely (the onus is on them, after all), then they should not make any plan whatsoever. Locking students into the option their parents/guardians unwittingly chose (signing away their child(ren)’s right to an education in the process), is manipulative and anything but transparent.
As the Board has once again proven they are not fit to make decisions in the best interest of its students, I ask - as a last resort - that your Office step in and take over the administration of it.