A series of public meetings was held throughout Eastern Ontario last week as part of the Upper Canada District School Board’s (UCDSB) accommodation review process. The Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) in each of the four districts heard presentations from representatives of some of the schools either slated for closure, or consolidation. Ten of the 29 schools slated for closure are in Leeds-Grenville, one being Oxford-on-Rideau Public School and another Wolford Public School; both are on the Board’s list to be closed at the end of this school year.
Each of the public meetings began with a presentation from a Board member explaining the ARC process and the reasoning behind it. The video created by the UCDSB explained that there are currently 10,000 more spaces in schools than are being used, which equates to 30 medium elementary schools. Because the Board receives funding from the government per student, these are spots that are not being paid for. It also argued that bringing children together improves programming through fewer spilt grades, access to staff, more extra-curricular activities and greater socialization. They are looking to have the right schools in the right places to support their vision for educational programming.
It is clear from the many presentations made by parents representing their schools that they do not agree. Andrew Pamenter, who spoke on behalf of rural schools in general at the meeting in Perth, stated that research shows that consolidation does not present significant savings, or improved educational outcomes for students. He suggested strengthening the local schools and bolstering the value they have in their respective communities. “We need to be speaking with the Province as rural support has been removed,” he said. “We should be engaging with all school boards to create a strategic rural educational plan.”
The rural support that he is talking about is the top-up funding that was previously being provided to the board to support rural schools. The fact that the province has cut this funding has played a huge role in the UCDSB looking to cut costs through consolidation. Rural school closures are an issue that is affecting families throughout the province. So much so, that many people gathered at a rally at Queens Park last week to protest the funding cuts.
Parent groups from many of the schools have taken it upon themselves to create a plan to increase enrollment and viability of their schools. Brent Lekx-Toniolo, who presented on behalf of Oxford-On-Rideau Public School at the meeting in Prescott, outlined a comprehensive plan to increase enrollment at that school. Parents have suggested making Oxford-On-Rideau a dual track school, offering both French immersion and English streams. Offering an extended daycare program at the school, or organizing a bus for transportation to a local daycare, is also a way they believe will encourage families to become a part of the Oxford-On-Rideau family. They also said that enrollment will increase inevitably, as North Grenville is considered one of the fastest growing communities in Ontario. “There are 2,000 new homes projected for the North West Quadrant alone,” he said. “Closing Oxford-On-Rideau is not an investment in the future, if they are looking for the right schools in the right place.”
The effect of closing these rural schools on the children who are enrolled there was also an over-arching theme of the meetings. Many of the schools already have high standings in academic achievement, and parents are worried that this will decline and their children will be lost in the shuffle at a larger school. They are also afraid of the affect of an hour-long bus ride to and from school every day. Christine Crate-Pavan represented Wolford Public School at the public meeting in Perth. As a graduate of Wolford Public School herself, she has seen student after student graduate from the school and go on to be leaders in agriculture and the trades. The school also ranked very highly in the EQAO standardized testing. “Access to education in rural and agricultural communities is important for kids who grow up on farms,” she says. “Why close a school where students are thriving and excelling at academic excellence.” Like Oxford –On-Rideau, Wolford Public School is also suggesting the addition of French immersion and a daycare to increase enrollment at the school. According to their research, the school is operating under budget already, so there will be no financial gain for the Board to close it.
Parents report a strong family atmosphere in rural schools, where kids love going to school and there is no bullying. The buildings are used, not only as educational institutions, but as community hubs and social gathering places. “The parents are very involved [at Wolford Public School]” Christine says. “We have concerts, movie nights and activity nights. It is important to kids who live in very rural situations to visit with family and friends.”
The Board assured those at the meetings that there has been no decision to close or consolidate schools yet. Information is being compiled and organized to present to the Board of Trustees on February 15, 2017. There will be another opportunity for delegations to present to the Trustees on March 2, 2017, with final decisions to be made on March 23, 2017.