Like many observers, I had always been impressed with Catherine Fife. I saw her as a strong candidate when she last tried to become an MPP.
Given my experience working for the Waterloo Region Early Learning Coalition during the extended day debate, I have serious concerns about Fife’s ability to effectively serve the people in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo as their member of provincial parliament.
Some may try to spin this post as a personal attack. It is not. My intent is to present the facts as I see them that should lead voters to ask themselves some questions before they vote for Fife.
If the NDP candidate was Isabel Cisterna, Bill Brown, Scott Piatkowski, Peter Thurley or Cameron Dearlove, I would not be writing a post about them. While I may not vote for them, I respect them all. In fact, I know Isabel, Scott, Peter and Cameron well enough as individuals that I could see each being an effective elected representative if they got elected.
Fife boasts about creating child care spaces that the government mandated
Catherine Fife boasts of creating 1600 child care spaces in Waterloo Region. The fact is that she didn’t. Those spaces were created by Ontario’s Liberal government. Fife’s role was to oversee the execution of the provincial program for the Waterloo Region District School Board. This post looks at her record handling what turned into one of the hottest local issues of the last year and what it tells us about her leadership and interest in public engagement.
Background on the extended day for 4 – 7 year olds
- The Pascal Report that recommended all day kindergarten also called for a “seamless day” or “extended day” where before and after school care would be provided by the school in the child’s classroom. The province introduced full day kindergarten with a seamless day as recommended
- After understanding the major disruption the seamless day would have on licensed child care, the province decided to change the rules and allow school boards to decide if community organizations could continue to offer before and after school care
- The Ottawa-Carleton District School board was the only public school board outside of Waterloo Region to consider operating all before and after-school care for 4 – 7 year olds
- In Ottawa-Carleton when a trustee learned about the concerns of parents about losing their relationships with community organizations such as the YWCA and YMCA for child care, the board held extensive consultations with parents and other stakeholders that were started well before the issue made headlines locally
- At the end of the consultations, Ottawa Carleton trustees voted on how to proceed with their extended day policy and chose a hybrid model that allowed community organizations to continue to operate programs in its schools.
Background on the WRDSB and the extended day
Here are some facts about the Waterloo Region District School Board’s (WRDSB) approach to its policy on extended day. Keep in mind that Catherine Fife was either vice-chair or chair of the board with considerable influence in how trustees and the board itself handled this issue.
- The WRDSB chose to continue with its plans to be the sole provider of before and after school care for 4 – 7 year olds in its schools even after the province listened to nonprofit child care organizations and allowed them to continue their role providing care for those children.
- The WRDSB did not consult parents currently using so called “third-party operators” about the change to the care of their children
- The WRDSB did not consult with the nonprofit organizations that offered care in schools–including those with sites inside schools–about the impact of their move on the delivery of their service for 4 – 7 years olds and its impact on the rest of the children and families that they served
- When parents started to hear about the coming change, they became concerned about the impact on relationships they had developed with the organizations they trusted to deliver quality care, they were concerned about increasing costs, and they were concerned about the unavailability of care in the summer.
- Even before I did any work for the child care providers, Natalie Waddell started a website to inform parents about the coming change that included a call for them to sign an online petition asking for their voices to be heard.
- Hundreds signed the petition but trustees did not listen despite the fact that Ottawa-Carleton had already held consultations when in a similar situation
- A trustee tabled a motion for consultations and got a seconder but new rules meant that a third trustee needed to support having the motion considered. Parents even attended a board meeting demanding to be a part of the process.
Catherine Fife had an opportunity to have this motion be considered by trustees but she did not take it. She had the chance to give parents a chance to be heard but chose not to do so. Even if Catherine Fife opposed public consultations, she could have supported having the motion considered by the board and put to a vote. She chose not to give trustees the option of considering consultations. She could have been accountable to voters by casting a vote for or against consultations, but she chose to avoid doing so.
- After considerable pressure, the board (not trustees) decided to hold some public information meetings. There was push back because the purpose of the meetings appeared to be to try to talk to parent, not to listen to them.
- The format announced was highly controlled with a maximum number of people allowed to attend. They needed to register ahead of time. Those attending were to be dispersed into small groups and they were to discuss questions decided upon by staff that did not take into account the concerns that parents had been raising. In short, they were to give the perception of listening but set up in such a way as to support a pre-destined outcome.
- After months of high profile, intense media coverage of the extended day issue, board staff decided they would not require community organizations to stop offering before and after school care.
- Some trustees felt they should vote on their policy for working with these nonprofit groups as the Ottawa-Carleton board had but no vote was held.
Trustees are elected to represent all taxpayers including parents. Even if they disagree with parents and prefer a different solution, trustees should ensure that parents are a part of a significant changes and ensure they feel their voices have been heard. Parents should not need to go to board meetings repeatedly asking to be heard only to be ignored and not even bringing a motion to hold consultations to the table to be voted upon. Parents should not need to organize to fight for the right to be heard, trustees should be helping to ensure they are heard.
I found myself so upset about how poorly democracy was working at our local school board’s that I wrote a post called “Democracy inaction at Waterloo Region school boards.” If democracy isn’t working as expected, Catherine Fife was part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Actions speak louder than words
I’ll admit I tried to go back and find quotes from Fife that said public consultations and hearing from parents were not needed. I couldn’t find any. I suspect that’s because when the issue emerged board staff took the lead on handling the issue. Indeed that was pretty much the case throughout the debate.
I did find some quotes where Fife is saying the right things. But as I’ve outlined above and is demonstrated below, I found no evidence that she did anything to ensure that parents were part of the process from the beginning. Nor that she did anything to help them be heard once they stood up and demanded it.
Concern on lack of public input from media coverage
Don’t take my word on the level of concern about the lack of public involvement in this issue. See how the media covered the issue and what they said in their editorials and columns.
At times, the meeting [at Ryerson Public School] became unruly, as angry parents voiced frustration about a lack of consultation regarding planned changes to daycare programming at schools.
“At this point, we see good intentions running wild in a very disconcerting way. Before the boards go any further, they need to explain to the public why the third party providers shouldn’t keep offering child care in local schools, why it is necessary for the boards to take over these services and what this expansionism will cost everyone. Broad consultation with parents should also be mandatory. So should answering this final question. If child care that’s exclusively run by school boards is such a great idea, why aren’t any other school boards in Ontario doing it?”
Listen to parents on child careIt’s great that Waterloo Region’s public board of education will finally talk to parents about the child care programs its schools offer. But if it expects full marks from the community, the board must make these talks truly meaningful. It needs to give the parents a real say in how their youngsters in kindergarten are handled before and after school — and who does the handling.
So far, what the board has slated for early next year is 90 per cent public relations and 10 per cent public empowerment.
True, the six meetings the board will hold in January and February will allow parents to become more directly involved in this issue. The meetings will gauge what parents think child care should be like and express the worries they might have about rising costs. And by holding the meetings throughout the region the board seems to be reaching out to many communities. Indeed, it’s possible that through these meetings parents can influence the board’s child care plans in some small way.
Yet it’s still not good enough. With each meeting limited to no more than 80 parents — who must register beforehand — the board will hear from a maximum of 480 members of the public in its sessions. But thousands of parents are impacted by this decision. One thousand of them already signed a petition asking for a different system from what the board proposes. The board will offer parents who can’t attend these meetings the chance to answer an online survey. But typing your thoughts onto a computer screen is not nearly as satisfying as standing up in a room and speaking frankly to someone in power.
In restricting the number of people at its public sessions, in corralling them into small groups to discuss just three, preset questions, the board risks being seen as a control freak interested in advancing its own agenda before anyone else’s.
But there’s an even bigger flaw in these meetings. For many parents, the biggest concern is the board’s plan to provide all the before- and after-school child care, even though this means the third-party, non-profit providers now doing the job will have to stop. A lot of parents prefer the third-party care, want to keep their kids in it and resent the fact that they will have to pay more if the board takes over the job.
What galls these parents all the more is knowing that board bureaucrats, not elected trustees, decided the board should take over all child care. Indeed, the bureaucrats remained adamant in this call even when the province gave them other options. For such parents, the board’s six meetings will be an utter waste of time and space because third-party child care is not up for discussion and, indeed, the main decisions about child care are done deals.
Here’s an idea. Why not hold more meetings, open the rooms to more than 80 people and open the agenda to hear what the parents think? After all, it’s their children we’re talking about, not the board’s. Then let the trustees vote on the model for child care they think best. These recommendations should also be considered by the region’s Roman Catholic school board. It, too, plans to take over before- and after-school child care. And to its discredit, it hasn’t even planned the minimal amount of public consultation the public board agreed to.
The sessions expect you to register in advance and are limited to 80 people per meeting. (Tuesday’s is already “sold out,” but there are plenty more.) They will be round-table discussions handled by an outside facilitator. Discussion topics are predecided. News media will be kept out.
This is a long way from the traditional public meetings where all citizens were welcome to just show up and say what they wanted. Witmer, who was an Iron Lady school board chair herself here in the 1980s, presided over a few fierce controversies, including the closing of Victoria Public School in Kitchener. But she said she never would have handled public meetings in this restrictive way.
I covered education for many years at this paper. Sitting at school board meetings, I was routinely infuriated by what I saw as the board’s culture of hostility to dissent, and its intransigence.
Progressive plan, cowardly message
Running a massive school board and dealing with directives from the Ministry of Education while on a tight budget is not an easy task. The Waterloo Region District School Board has come up with a contentious plan to run some before- and after-school daycare programs themselves, rather than through third-party providers. It’s a decision that could be seen as a progressive move toward a seamless day for children and their families, one that could eventually become universal to all schools.
But instead the school board has bungled their interactions with parents and the public to an embarrassing degree.
The school board billed Tuesday night’s meeting at Driftwood Park Public School as a round-table discussion, and barred the media from attending. A hired gun was brought in to “facilitate” the closed-door session and answer questions from the media afterward. This degree of message management is usually reserved for disasters and catastrophies, not for a program that is being touted as forward-thinking.
This limited method of communication is just an extension of the fact that the issue has yet to have a full hearing before the board of trustees. A third trustee signature is required on a motion before it can be brought to the board. This matter has clearly raised concerns for hundreds of people, but so far no trustee has been brave enough to add their signature to those of trustees Cindy Watson and Colin Harrington.
Such an important decision must be subjected to the full scrutiny of the public, and it should come before the board of trustees. If it is the right move, trustees should be willing to publicly debate it, and support it with their vote.
The first of a series of public consultation meetings on the topic of board-run extended daycare dramatically changed course by letting parents ask their own questions.
It’s a validation that the public school board is open to listening to parents, maintains Catherine Fife, the chair of the Waterloo Region District School Board.
“There was a willingness to adjust the agenda,” said Fife. “We do want to hear what parents’ concerns are.”
The original plan for the meeting, held this week at Kitchener’s Driftwood Public School, was to have parents and one appointed facilitator at each table discuss three set questions on the topics including fees and daycare on holidays.
However, some parents unhappy with the the format demanded that school trustees stand up and answer direct questions. Fife said the board honoured the request and she answered policy questions while board administrative staff answered operations-based questions.
“At the end of the day it was a better format,” she said.
This quote begs the questions that if the board wants to hear parents concerns:
- Why did parents need to fight for consultations?
- Why did the original format not include an opportunity to address trustees and ask them questions?
- Why did parents need to demand a different format if it what they wanted from the beginning was “better?”
And most important for voters in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo, why did Catherine Fife do nothing to help parents make their voices heard? Will she help them make their voices heard at Queen’s Park? Will she listen to their concerns even if she disagrees with them? Will they feel heard if they get the chance?
This week, the board is holding what it likes to call “community roundtable discussions” on the plan. You could call it a public meeting, but it’s not, since the media is not invited to the event.
When it comes to spending public money on an issue as big as education, I don’t like to see the media excluded. Elected officials and public groups tend not to misbehave as much when there’s a chance of wider public disclosure.
The board says it wants to ensure parents don’t have to endure the scrutiny of the media.
Sure, that’s it. It’s got nothing to do with the board’s image.
Remember, this is a group which continues to move toward the extended day plan, only at the last minute scheduling discussions which purportedly will hear the concerns of parents.
Call me crazy, but I thought you might have those discussions first but maybe the added bother of pesky paents was too much for the board.
The WRDSB has no one to blame but itself for that particular feeling among taxpayers. In a year they have created the image of a group which can’t be bothered to care about voters. Perhaps our apathy at the polls has created some of that, but, the trustees have a responsibility not to fall into that trap.
Remember again, this is the same group which now forces trustees to have two other trustees sign up with a motion before it can be presented to the board.
That takes away public discussion of issues and creates the idea the board is putting together backroom deals before it makes it into a public forum.
If it wasn’t for Cambridge Trustee Cindy Watson, who has consistently fought for the right of parents to be heard, there wouldn’t be anyone standing up for the people who actually provide the board with their reason for being.
What do these facts tell us about Catherine Fife?
Before parents using community organizations for before and after school care found out they were going to lose their providers, Fife appeared in a video created by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation promoting the WRDSB vision for a seamless/extended day. It’s a video that was on the board’s website as parents were just learning that they would lose their valued relationships. She’s quoted saying that it’s something that parents want. No wonder it was so hard to get the board and Fife to consider other perspectives and listen to other voices. She agreed with the board’s approach because it matched her ideology and collectively they had already made up their mind.
At 8:24, the director of education is quoted as saying that “the board of trustees had fully embraced this direction. They’ve embraced this direction, I believe, because they have been involved every step of the way.” But it turned out that the board didn’t know all the implications in the direction.
At what point did Fife recommend consultations with parents especially those using child cares already in the schools? When did she ensure that the community organizations running those child care centres be consulted?
Fife never ensured that community partners nor parents of affected children were consulted before this video was created. So it’s no great surprise that she didn’t help them make their voices heard when they became concerned and asked to be consulted.
From my perspective, this video combined with the facts presented earlier mean that:
- Fife values ideology more than public engagement
- Like Stephen Harper, Tim Hudak and other ideologues, Fife prefers to avoid facts that don’t support her ideology
- She lacks leadership skills to bring together diverse viewpoints from across the community
If you support Fife’s ideology or think that the NDP is your preferred party in the riding in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding by-election, then vote for her. But first ask yourself: As MPP will Fife listen to what her constituents have to say? Even if they disagree with her? Even if they don’t share her ideology but have facts that should be heard and considered?
And concerning the bigger picture: Will Fife help make a minority government work better? Or will she just contribute more demands to the Ontario NDP’s constantly changing list that they had for the budget? And if she gets her demand, will she sit on her hands and refuse to vote like the NDP caucus did twice on budget votes?
If you are looking for a progressive candidate that builds community through public engagement and is open to pragmatic solutions, I recommend Eric Davis get your vote.