Jennifer Ellis (left) of the Rossland Neighbourhoods of Learning committee makes a presentation on behalf of the group to the Board of Education on Monday night.

Don’t be blinded by numbers, NOL urges

A group of Rossland residents questioned the accuracy of the data contained in a controversial report on educational facilities in School District 20 and urged trustees on Monday night to look more closely at the figures before making any decisions.

“What we’d like to do is to start a dialogue with respect to whether some of the conclusions (in the report) are accurate or not,” Jennifer Ellis told trustees and senior staff during Monday’s Board of Education meeting at Blueberry Creek Community School.

Ellis and other members of the Rossland Neighbourhoods of Learning (NOL) committee outlined a variety of concerns over how the data in the district’s “Planning for the Future” facilities report was gathered, manipulated and evaluated.

The numbers-heavy document, weighing in at a hefty 283 pages, offers an extensive evaluation of the school district’s current facilities and its likely facility needs in the coming years. Using a point system to weigh a variety of criteria, it also ranks various options for re-configuring how facilities are used.

The four top-ranking options involve school closures in Castlegar and Rossland, and this has become a source of significant controversy in those communities.

The NOL committee argued that the barrage of numbers in the report shouldn’t be accepted at face value, and trustees ought to look carefully at where those numbers come from and what they truly represent.

The committee noted that it impossible to precisely quantify subjective things like “educational opportunities” and “potential to adapt to future change” and also raised some technical concerns with the report’s attempt to at least approximate these types of things.

For example, Ellis pointed out that the report’s weighting system assigns zero points to high schools with fewer than 39 students per grade when it comes to educational opportunities. High schools with 150 students per grade, by comparison, get six points and those with 200 or more students per grade get 10 points.

“I’m not convinced that less than 39 students per grade is best for children but I’m also not convinced that 200-plus is the best,” Ellis said.

Various criteria are also double or triple-counted in the overall evaluation, she noted, and the scoring system tends to exaggerate relatively small differences between various options.

As an example of the latter, she pointed to the way the report evaluates capital expenditures: one option which involves a capital expenditure of $9.7 million is assigned a score of 10 points, while another which involves a capital expenditure of $14.2 million is assigned a score of zero points.

Ellis argued that this is a disproportionate method of comparison.

In general, she said the way the report assigns points tends to be biased towards larger schools and the technical concerns “make the conclusions difficult to accept.”

Still, she admitted that NOL’s own take on the situation isn’t perfect either.

“This is our best analysis of your analysis,” she told the board. “We’re happy to discuss some of things we didn’t get quite right either.”

Trustee Mickey Kinakin thanked Ellis for the presentation and said he agreed that some of the criteria in the report are too subjective to accurately quantify.

“At the same time, I think we all have to face reality,” he added. “At some point … we’re going to have to face the declining enrolment issue.”

He asked Ellis: “Are you prepared to sit down with the board and face some very hard decisions and changes that are going to have to happen in your community?”

She replied: “We do understand that money is not unlimited and we may have to accept some changes.”

Others were not so pleased with the NOL presentation, however.

Trustee Lorraine Manning took offence to the group’s critique of the facilities report, the creation of which involved countless hours of work by district staff.

“To me, it’s almost an insult to our staff,” she said. “I just really feel badly that our report was criticized so badly.”

Manning also expressed her confidence in the report.

“I, as a trustee, have to hire people that get very highly paid salaries to bring us stuff, and I have to accept what they give me,” she said.

Supt. Jean Borsa, however, noted that the facilities report was never intended as the be-all and end-all when it comes to decision making.

“This facilities report was always intended as one more piece of information,” she said.

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