School board pans its own strategic plan
By Rob Wipond, October 2011
Stantec makes off with the money in what looks like a nation-wide practice of producing copied-and-pasted assessments.
The year-long development of the Greater Victoria School District’s strategic facilities plan may have been an utter waste of time, resources and taxpayer dollars. And now, practically everyone involved is hoping and praying that’s exactly what it was—because the alternative would be much worse.
Either way, the consulting firm Stantec is plucking untold sums from school district coffers through what looks like a questionable BC-wide or even national practice.
“It’s about a billion-dollar corporation that appears to have taken advantage of the good will of a vulnerable school district that’s already stretched to its limits,” summarizes David Bratzer, a Victoria police constable who’s been following school issues and is running for a trustee position this fall.
The bizarre situation began unfolding early last year.
School districts regularly submit five-year “Capital Plans” to the provincial government to access funds for building design, construction, maintenance, renovations and repairs. Last year, the province changed the rules. Starting May, 2011, school districts would be required to have a comprehensive, strategic, longer-term School District Facilities Plan (SDFP), and the SDFP would provide the basis and rationale for all future five-year Capital Plan requests.
That should’ve been big news. With an annual budget approaching $200 million, GVSD is one of this region’s largest employers and land and building owners, and its decisions have enormous impacts on neighbourhoods. Some school districts, like Saanich’s, have created committees with diverse stakeholders to lead community SDFP consultations. GVSD, however, paid $49,000 to outsource the project to Stantec, a multinational engineering, infrastructure and consulting company.
Apparently, GVSD had other pressing priorities.
”You wouldn’t have to [hire a consultant], if you had somebody free on staff who could do it,” explains GVSD board chair Tom Ferris.
Few even knew about the decision.
“It represents the privatization of strategic planning within our public school district. I’m strongly opposed to that,” says Bratzer. But he didn’t hear about the plan until it was nearly finished. “It slid under the radar for almost everybody.”
The Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association was consulted once. “I’m not sure that it was anything more than the ability for them to write in their report that we’d been consulted,” says president Tara Ehrcke. “I don’t think anything that we said got responded to or incorporated.”
How little public involvement was there? “I was not consulted in the development of this plan,” states Catherine Alpha—and she’s an elected trustee on the GVSD board overseeing the project.
In late April of this year, Stantec announced its only public meeting for May 10th. None of the 30-some people who attended, including GVSD staff and trustees, were even shown a draft copy of the plan, and less than an hour of questioning occurred. A month later, Stantec submitted the final plan.
At the June board meeting before summer break, GVSD trustees were reeling with disappointment, frustration and anxiety.
Ferris commented to general assent that, in terms of the factual information, “I don’t think there’s anything in that report that we don’t already know.” Bev Horsman described Stantec’s recommendations as “inflammatory,” and called for deleting them.
Dave Pitre said he was “alarmed” that the BC government might already have a copy of the now-public plan and expect GVSD to conform to it in future.
The trustees’ complaints? Here are just a few: Stantec had used policy concepts this district never uses and proposed extremely controversial school closings and consolidations. They hadn’t balanced facilities issues with educational concerns, like the value of multipurpose rooms for special-needs students. They’d attached no importance to heritage sites. They’d stopped their projections around 2020-25, precisely when cyclical birthrates should be boosting enrolments again. And trustees were stunned Stantec (apparently obliviously) had actually recommended violating the BC School Act in restricting enrolments.
Michael McEvoy was particularly bemused by discords between what the Victoria statistics actually showed, versus what the plan recommended. “Contrary to the conclusions that were drawn in the report,” he said, “[the numbers] didn’t speak to me in any way about school closures.”
Peg Orcherton and Alpha asked if payment could be withheld until Stantec did more research and analysis. Administrators hastily quashed that, supported by trustee Elaine Leonard.
“They’ve fulfilled the [Request for Proposals],” said Leonard. “We’re obliged to pay them.”
Her assertion was questioned, but the discussion then turned to reassuring the public this plan didn’t reflect actual board plans.
All of which raised the question: How did a crucial, provincially-mandated long-term strategic plan, contracted by the GVSD board, come to in no way reflect the views of the board?
After a summer fending off spreading public anxiety, trustees don’t have the same recollections about what they’d even hired Stantec to do.
“I just assumed the agenda was to have a [facility] audit,” says Horsman. “[Stantec] had no business making recommendations that involved dramatic changes to the way schooling would happen in Victoria.”
Alpha and Orcherton concur, adding that they expect any true strategic plan to involve the board and community. They’re worried the Ministry of Education may hold them to Stantec’s plan if they don’t create another one.
Conversely, Leonard says she’d wanted “outside” perspectives.
“I take it as one of the tools in our toolbox that we use to come up with our [five-year] facilities plan,” she says. “That’s my understanding of it and that’s how I understood it all the way along.”
Ferris similarly feels the province’s directive has been satisfactorily met and it’s time to move on.
So as far as he’s concerned, the Stantec plan is our new SDFP?
“Yep,” Ferris answers.
Ferris isn’t worried, though, about how thoroughly this SDFP contradicts the board’s actual perspectives or plans.
“You have to bear in mind, this is not a document which binds anybody to anything. It provides information,” he says. “It isn’t terrifically important.”
So why would the provincial government mandate it?
“I’m not exactly sure,” Ferris says. “That would be a good question; you’d have to go to the province about that. I suppose you could ask if it was worth doing.”
I contacted the Ministry of Education (more on that in a moment). But even reading GVSD’s own Request for Proposals, it seems all the trustees may be inventively evading their responsibility for the fiasco.
Their RFP reads, “The Board of Education... wishes to retain a consultant to prepare a comprehensive Strategic Facilities Plan... that provides rationale for specific capital projects that may be proposed as part of the School District's five year capital plan.”
Clearly, the trustees were seeking a consultant to develop a comprehensive Strategic Facilities Plan to guide the board’s future decisions under the province’s new rules. Not someone to just prepare a background report, outside perspective, unimportant gobbledygook, or building audit without recommendations. Indeed, the RFP they all approved lists 13 detailed objectives, including for the consultant to “recommend changes” in a wide range of vital areas such as policies and planning principles, accommodating special needs, consolidation and replacement of schools, and possible alternate uses of schools by outside agencies. (Notably, the proponent was also required to “provide interim reports to the Board of School Trustees.”)
As far as the SDFP’s importance goes: Though the plan needn’t be formally submitted, the province’s directive states that, “A comprehensive SDFP must form the basis for a board of education’s capital investment decisions.” And its new application form for facilities funding states all requests “must” have already been established in the SDFP and be supported through rationales “as outlined in the SDFP.” How this might be enforced remains unclear, but in an email, a Ministry of Education spokesperson stated, “The Ministry would not expect to receive a capital project request that could not be supported by a district’s SDFP, nor would the Ministry expect a Board to prioritize a request outside of its SDFP.”
“[The trustees] need to start the whole thing over from scratch,” says Bratzer. “It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this.”
And even if the province inexplicably doesn’t enforce its own directive, he’d like GVSD to follow School District #63’s lead to forge a better plan while building support for public education.
“If you have an extensive public process to develop a long-term plan for the district, then you provide people with an opportunity to engage and to learn about the issues,” says Bratzer. “I passionately believe we need to get the entire community involved. But [this school board] hasn’t shown a willingness to do that.”
Meanwhile, Bratzer won’t let Stantec off the hook, either. In the media and a presentation to the board, he criticized the plan’s “simplistic and repetitive” advice, and pointed to seven sections which were copied, without proper attribution, from government and other websites.
“Somebody reading this plan has no way of determining what recommendations are genuine recommendations that have come from a professional consulting firm as opposed to text that has simply been copied from a Ministry of Education website,“ he comments.
Ferris dismissed it as common practice for consultants, and Orcherton criticized it as “sloppiness,” but either way, Bratzer’s pleas to protect the school district’s “academic integrity” by shredding the plan, withholding payment, and giving Stantec “an F for plagiarism” have been largely ignored.
Even though he’s used to following orders on duty, as a private citizen, Bratzer is equally accustomed to, in his words, “speaking truth to power” in the face of controversy. He’s a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (which advocates harm-reduction drug laws), and criticized “tough on crime” legislation to a federal Senate Committee. This September, Bratzer was still doggedly distributing his binder of materials censuring the Stantec report.
I decided to investigate further. And I soon discovered there’s an obvious reason why Stantec’s plan doesn’t reflect our community or GVSD policies, values, goals or statistics: Much of it was written for another school district. It appears that copying and pasting together all-purposely worded school district strategic plans has become a multimillion dollar business for Stantec.
For example, Chapter 4 in Stantec’s Victoria plan, “Vision and Strategic Facilities Planning Principles,” begins, “The demographics of the District have changed significantly over the past several years, with some schools increasing in enrolment and some schools decreasing in enrolment. This has resulted in some schools being overcrowded and some schools being underutilized.” If that sounds like something that could apply to any school district without even looking, that’s because that’s exactly how it’s being used. That paragraph and about 99 percent of the text on the following five pages have been copied in toto from Stantec’s March 2010 Delta School District long-term plan.
Similarly, about 80 percent of the Victoria plan’s Chapter 5, “Options and Evaluations” and Chapter 6, “Summary and Recommendations” are also copied from Delta’s plan and other sources.
Victoria’s plan also includes 90 pages of enrollment charts and school zone maps—but the data for these came from our own school board (“There was no new information within the report,” confirms GVSD superintendent John Gaiptman.)
So in the end, only a tiny percentage of Stantec’s 120-page strategic plan for our school district seems to be original, Victoria-relevant material. But even those parts aren’t reliable: Many “locally specific” sections were apparently merely created with an automated search-and-replace action, because odd grammar or capitalization errors are frequently left behind, like “...the current condition of The District schools...” and “Some The District schools have surplus capacity...”
Stantec has recently also produced strategic plans for school districts in Powell River, Abbotsford, Okanagan-Skaha, Chilliwack, Port Alberni and elsewhere. And wherever they’re searchable online, vast swaths of identical or slightly-changed sections can be found. My mind dizzies trying to imagine how this dubious practice can possibly keep working, upon discovering that nearly identical elucidations of “Background,” “Vision,” “Key factors driving the need for the plan,” and “Planning Principles” are now guiding school regions as diverse as Wetaskiwin in rural Alberta, Regina’s Prairie Valley, and Greater Victoria.
And the biggest beneficiary when school districts follow Stantec’s “standard” recommendations may be Stantec itself: Their blog boasts about Stantec’s major design and construction projects underway at Kelset Elementary School in Saanich, Royal Oak Middle School and North Saanich Middle School.
“I’ve been very careful to give the school board and Stantec the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t do that anymore,” comments Bratzer. “It’s time to focus on accountability. And it’s important also for us to rally as a community and begin looking at a genuine long-term plan that is created through community engagement as opposed to by a private corporation.”
Rob Wipond recognizes that our school district is struggling with serious underfunding, and for that reason this strategic plan was perhaps not high on the priority list.
Sections of the Wetaskiwin, Delta and Greater Victoria strategic plans produced by Stantec:
A small selection of school district strategic plans from Stantec which have notable similarities:
The Greater Victoria School District strategic plan from Stantec is included in this agenda.
Delta School District Long Range Facilities Plan from Stantec.
Alberta Wetaskiwin Regional Public Schools strategic plan from Stantec.
Prairie Valley School Division in Regina, Saskatchewan strategic plan from Stantec.