Over the past two weeks, the Upper Canada District School Board [UCDSB] held the second round of public meetings as part of their Pupil Accommodation Review process.
Members of the five Accommodation Review Committees, or ARCs, heard from various school groups, organizations and individuals, all making the case to keep rural schools open.
According to the presenters, closing rural schools introduces a myriad of different issues including the over-population of schools, long commute times for students, loss of a community hub, and loss of extra-curricular activities and volunteers, just to name a few. Many of the presenters also commented on issues with the accommodation review process itself, which has felt extremely one-sided and rushed. “When we are at the ARC meetings, they look at us when we speak. They do listen to us, I just don’t know if they hear us”, says Ron Maitland, the ARC member for Wolford Public School.
Ron says he believes the School Board is going about the process in entirely the wrong way. It is true that the UCDSB has a problem. They are not receiving enough funding from the government to allow for certain schools to remain open while under capacity. To rectify this, they have suggested several closures and consolidations to cut costs and, in their words, “have the right schools in the right places.” It appears, from an outsider’s perspective, that they have made these recommendations based on numbers alone and without much thought about how these school closures will affect the communities and their children.
This has left parents like Christine Pavan, whose two children go to Wolford Public School, scrambling to find alternatives that would increase the number of students at the school and save it from closure; a job that you could argue should have been the School Board’s in the first place. “The Board needs to make sacrifices before they ask parents to start making them,” Christine said in the public question period at the end of her ARC’s public meeting last week.
According to the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline set out by the Ministry of Education, there are quite a few options that the Board must consider before that of closing a school is on the table. These options include: moving attendance boundaries and programs to balance enrolment between over- and under-utilized schools, offering space to another school board with the same boundaries, finding community partners who can pay the full cost of operating the under-utilized space, and/or decommissioning or demolishing the section of the school that is not required by students to reduce operating costs.
Mayor of Merrickville-Wolford, David Nash believes that the UCDSB has not done its due diligence when it comes to considering these options before recommending the closure of rural schools. While at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference last week, he had the opportunity to speak with Premier Kathleen Wynne, who says she expects all the school boards to be working together to find solutions before closing any schools.
Many schools, including Wolford Public School in Merrickville and Oxford-on-Rideau Public School in North Grenville, have pinpointed opportunities for changing boundaries, offering dual track (French and English) programming and on-site daycare as ways to increase enrollment. While there are many schools throughout the board that are under capacity, there are also several which are grossly overpopulated. Changing the school catchment areas could mitigate this issue and drive more students into the empty spots in rural areas.
It is also clear from the public meetings that there is ample support from community organizations and businesses to keep the rural schools now slated for closure open. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) sent a representative to each of the public meetings to make their case about how integral schools are to a rural community. As an organization that represents 36,000 family farm businesses in Ontario, they see having a rural school system as integral to the health of the farming community. Families are more likely to settle in rural Ontario if they know that quality education is right at their doorstep. Non-farming rural businesses also hold a stake in rural schools, because that is where the children of their employees and customers go to school. In a high-profile case in Markdale, Ontario Chapmans Ice Cream offered $1 million to buy Beavercrest Community School and lease it back to the Board to keep it open. While most of the businesses around here don’t have those resources, the sentiment remains the same. “When you close a rural school, you are closing off opportunities for the whole community,” said Eleanor Renaud of the OFA.
We have parents, students, businesses, community groups and municipalities banding together to save what they see as important assets in their communities. There have been many hours spent pouring over statistics, collecting data and drafting presentations, and all on top of busy family lives and careers. Yet, it is unclear whether all this work will even make a difference. While a lot has been heard from those fighting to keep the schools open, there has been little response from the School Board itself. As Ron Maitland says, their questions have been answered, but not in a way that has been helpful, and it has sometimes taken months to hear anything. The most the public heard from the UCDSB at the meetings came in the form of a very polished video complete with smiling children and a strange female narrator with a British accent.
If anything, the Pupil Accommodation Review has incited fear and pitted schools against each other, arguing “close them not us.” “To be honest I am embarrassed that the School Board would put us in a position that does nothing except bring out the worst in people,” Ron says.
Senior staff will now be using the feedback and information they have gathered throughout this process to create a final report to be delivered to the Board on February 15. At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees on March 2, they will be receiving delegations from the public which will be approved beforehand. Final decisions about closures and consolidations of schools will be made on March 23, 2017.