The spin which was being put on Education Minister Mitzie Hunter’s statements gave a very inaccurate impression of what is happening in rural schools in Ontario today. The official position was that Ontario was “Strengthening Education in Rural and Northern Ontario”, by spending more money on addressing local needs, reviewing and updating the pupil accommodation review process to “allow for further community consultation regarding school closure decisions”, and providing funds to “further enhance students’ learning experience in rural schools, with better programming such as French immersion, arts education and guidance counselling”.
The Minister stated that “Based on feedback heard during in-person rural education engagements and from on-line survey respondents this spring”, she had decided that the Department would overhaul the process school boards used to decide which schools would be closed. In the meantime, as further analysis was undertaken, “school boards will not begin any new reviews” to identify schools for closure.
All of this sounded so good, until the other shoe dropped. After finally acknowledging the rural school needed more support and funding, Ms Hunter then added that, oh yes, if your school has already been slated for closing, that will go ahead. It seems that, in spite of discovering that the process is flawed, that rural school have an important role to play in their communities, schools like Oxford-on-Rideau in Oxford Miles, and Wolford Public School in Merrickville-Wolford, will not benefit from this awakening on the part of the Minister and her staff.
To add insult to injury, the Minister’s statement even claimed that the new Rural and Northern Education Fund for this September will “further enhance students’ learning experience in rural schools, with better programming such as French immersion, arts education and guidance counselling”. The parents and supporters of keeping Oxford-on-Rideau open will be glad to know that their imaginative plans for increasing enrollment and use of the school have been taken up by the Minister.
French Immersion classes, as well as the creative robotics program already being planned for the school, were ideas put forward by parents at the ARC meetings. It was not just in Leeds Grenville that those meetings were condemned as window-dressing by school boards who had already decided on school closures. The Facebook page for Ontario Alliance Against School Closures gives a very clear picture of how widespread the opposition to school closures reaches across the Province of Ontario, and how difficult people are finding it that the Minsiter decided to issue her statement after the public consultations had ended and decisions on closure had been announced.
Lisa Swan, local trustee with the Upper Canada District School Board, has written an open letter to her colleagues seeking to reopen the decision to close some of the seven schools scheduled for closure. However, Jeff McMillan, Chair of the Board, has repeatedly insisted that there will be no rethinking of the decisions made already, and the listed schools will close. Paying lip service to the importance of rural schools, he said that the Minsiter’s decision not to roll back decisions on closures will allow the Board “to move forward beyond the difficult dialogue of accommodation reviews and to set our focus and energies for serving and sustaining the schools that the Board has committed to operate into the foreseeable future”.
According to a Board statement: “Today’s announcements, when coupled with the Ministry of Education’s recent funding announcement of over $52 million in capital improvements for our local schools, amounts to good news for the Upper Canada District School Board. We look forward to using these opportunities as our Board continues to serve our students and rural communities into the future.”
Unfortunately, thanks to McMillan and Friends, some communities will not have a future that includes a local school. MPP Steve Clark holds out some hope that the Minister’s statement and reevaluation of the status of rural schools will open the door to a change of heart by the board. He is quite clearly rather cynical about the timing and motives behind Minister Hunter’s statement: “I’m skeptical we’ve actually seen a change of heart today from a government that has closed over 700 schools since 2004. Their actions clearly demonstrate that rural Ontario is just an afterthought to them and I suspect today’s announcement is motivated by next June’s election rather than a true commitment to rural education.”
The closure of Oxford-on-Rideau would be short-sighted and damaging to the community. At a time when the yet-to-be-opened Public School in Kemptville seems already to be over capacity, taking away the only rural school left in North Grenville is counterproductive. Spaces will be needed in the very near future. What is the UCDSB going to do then – build another school in Kemptville?