Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Bad Idea!

Alberta’s Liberal Party recently announced a twelve-point plan for improving political governance in Wild Rose country. There were eleven points worthy of serious discussion and – with apologies to my canine friends- one dog. The one that barked suggested that Albertans voting in provincial elections receive a $50 tax credit. Sadly, that woofer got most of the media attention and the good points didn’t receive the attention they deserved.
So why is paying people to vote a bad idea? Let me count the ways: Our troops are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to give the gift of democracy to the Afghanis, while the home folks won’t vote unless they’re paid. Paying democratic slackers to do their civic duty insults those Canadians who take their citizenship seriously and faithfully vote in municipal, provincial, and federal elections. It also sends a dangerous message to all citizens, implying that the state will absorb the heavy lifting of good citizenship. That’s a very dangerous idea.
Communities that are active, committed and engaged don’t happen by Divine intervention, government assistance or by accident. They happen because the citizens in such communities work darned hard.
Outside resources and agencies can play a positive role in community evolution. Federal and provincial government programs not tied to a particular political or economic agenda can assist. Organizations such as the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association (ARPA) provide invaluable access to resources and information vital to community building.
Even organizations like ARPA must be constantly aware of the risks inherent in doing too much. When the music stops, we must pay the orchestra. When government grants disappear, active, committed and engaged communities must self-finance. When ARPA moves on to other challenges, the active, committed and engaged community will continue to develop its’ own capacity.
Sustainable community evolution happens when a community has the courage and the commitment to empower itself. There are no silver bullets or magic wands. Active, committed, and engaged communities engage themselves in the painful self-examination, spirited discussion, and hard work of community change and evolution. They succeed because they have made the social investment required for success.
What about those communities where most folks don’t give a rip- where a handful of overworked volunteers do the bulk of the hard work of community building? How about the communities where the number of citizens choosing not to vote exceeds those who do? Those communities should begin writing their own community obituary, for their days as a functioning community are numbered.
Compared to the difficult elements of community development- consensus building and conflict management- voting is a piece of cake. When citizens no longer value community responsibility enough to exercise the right to vote, they turn their backs on participation in an active, committed, engaged, and democratic community. The bottom line: Paying people to vote simply enables bad citizenship and insults the efforts of true community builders. It’s a bad idea. Woof!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Schools Make A Difference

Closing a school is a lot like breaking up a longtime love affair- it’s hard to do. School closure is a process that fills everyone involved with a sense of failure and loss, and the pain doesn’t go away quickly.
Some inner-city communities here in Edmonton are losing their schools, and their residents and the Edmonton Public School Board are feeling the pain. Residents know that the loss of their public school diminishes the intrinsic social value of their community and the market value of their homes. For Board members, closing schools is the exact opposite of what they want to be doing, which is growing public education.
Across Alberta, school closures are the inevitable result of changing demographics, past and current urban planning policies, rural depopulation, school board and Alberta Education policies, and community disengagement from public education. The reality is that most folks without kids in a community school don’t give a hoot about the school until the padlock looms. Then the community isolation from the school ends, but it’s much too late. School Board administrators present the public with the relevant provincial and local policies, the low enrollment numbers and the future projections of enrollment; all justifying the closure. The Board grits its’ teeth and closes the school.
Are school closures the predictable and inevitable? What can we do to strengthen the viability of community schools and public education?
Schools are vitally important to every one of us both socially and economically. That’s why community schools built, maintained, and staffed by public money should respond to local community needs. They are not the exclusive property of trustees, school administrators, teachers, students, or parents. School facilities should host and support community initiatives pertaining to adult education and family programs. Entire communities need to be involved in the design and program planning of new schools and retrofits of existing schools.
We need a public discussion on the allocation of the most important asset in public education- time. The amount of class time available for a child in a school day is the most valuable commodity in public education. Constant pressure on our schools to expand the curriculum, and the ever-increasing costs involved in public education make every in-school minute a priceless asset.
Then why in the name of sanity are so many school buses disgorging homeward-bound students in mid-day? On early dismissal days, some rural Alberta students spend more time on their school bus than they do in their classroom.
Would these kinds of changes save every school from closure? There will always be school closures that are painful for communities, trustees, and the students forced to relocate by the closure. That’s just an unpleasant fact. What is unacceptable is the continuation of the status quo.
What will change the status quo? Change will happen when ratepayers demand that their trustees and provincial politicians take actions protecting community schools and public education.
Public education is important to our youth, our communities, our economy, and our society, yet we only pay attention when it fails. The closure of schools across Alberta is a painful reminder that when it comes to public education issues, ignorance is NOT bliss.