Four Cornwall Catholic schools on chopping block

Cornwall Catholic trustee Todd Lalonde raises his hand on Tuesday, Oct 4, 2016 to vote for a review of nine Cornwall schools. Facing declining enrollment, the board is looking at closing four schools and consolidating its operations. Also at the table are chairman Brent Laton and Director of Education Bill Gartland. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

KEMPTVILLE – Nine Cornwall Catholic schools are under the microscope with four sites identified for possible closure, starting in the summer of 2018.

Trustees voted Tuesday night in Kemptville, Ont. to receive the 166-page report from staff and begin the Pupil Accommodation Review process, which includes striking a committee and setting up a timeline for public meetings.

Under the proposal (Option 1), Immaculate Conception, St. Columban’s and Sacred Heart would close.

Immaculate Conception students would go to Bishop Macdonell and St. Peter; St. Columban’s and Sacred Heart students would go to a new JK-6 school to be built on the Sacred Heart site or somewhere nearby.

Bishop Macdonell and St. Anne schools would be converted to JK-6 facilities and grade 7 and 8 students would go to a newly-built St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School.

The current St. Joe’s location would close under the plan.

There are no changes proposed for St. Matthew Catholic Secondary School and Holy Trinity Elementary and Secondary.

If they went ahead, the closures and redirecting of students wouldn’t happen until June 2018 through September 2019.

The preferred changes would reduce the number of student spaces in Cornwall by 671, the overall operating and maintenance costs by $20 million a year and would boost overall student seat use in the Cornwall family of schools to 97 per cent (currently at 86 per cent).

A secondary option (Option 2) would have the same closures as Option 1, except a new JK-6 school would be built to replace Sacred Heart and the existing St. Joe’s site would be converted to a grade 7-12 school. While it would result in cutting more student spaces, it’s the less preferred option as the savings would only be $12.2 million a year due to huge price tag ($7.7 million) to upkeep the old St. Joe’s site.

Much like the Upper Canada board, the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario is facing a financial crunch because of empty seats in Cornwall schools.

The board argues it’s losing $653,353 a year in revenue because of 481 unused student spaces (30 per cent of entire vacancy in the board this school year) – money that could be reinvested in the classroom.

With enrollment in Cornwall (currently 2,887 students) projected to fall 9.4 per cent by 2029, the CDSBEO argues the financial loss due on the provincial funding formula, calculated on used class space, will become even worse.

Bonnie Norton, the superintendent of business for the CDSBEO, presents the Pupil Accommodation Review to the board of trustees on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The provincially-triggered review of nine Cornwall schools could see the closure of four sites, along with consolidation, if the plan goes ahead. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)
Bonnie Norton, the superintendent of business for the CDSBEO, presents the Pupil Accommodation Review to the board of trustees on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The provincially-triggered review of nine Cornwall schools could see the closure of four sites, along with consolidation, if the plan goes ahead. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

Cornwall and Glengarry County trustee Todd Lalonde was quick to point the finger at the Ministry of Education for the situation, while tempering his comments that the review was “due diligence” and “nothing is written in stone.”

“Being under the ministry, that’s the reason we’re doing this. It’s required. I think it’s important that people recognize that we don’t get the wrong message out in the community…we are doing what’s asked of us as a board of trustees,” he told fellow trustees.

But Lalonde said he couldn’t ignore the significant projected savings of $20 million. “For the simple fact that, if we can save some money somewhere, down the road and redirect that into the classrooms…there’s only one winner, that’s the students.”

“This is not going to happen unless it’s the best thing for the board. We are not rushing to close schools,” he said.

In an interview with Cornwall Newswatch, Lalonde was still careful to say this is just a review.

Fellow Cornwall-area trustee Ron Eamer said the report was “not the best reading in the world.” He was concerned whether the board was talking to the City of Cornwall about building plans, because three subdivisions were under construction where a new school would be built.

Eamer told Cornwall Newswatch the options are not a done deal and may look completely different by the end of the process.

As for the public review, the public meeting dates have already been picked – Nov. 30, 2016 and Feb. 15, 2017 – at a location to be announced. Presentations to the school board will also take place April 4, 2017.

The final recommendation would come to the board on May 2, 2017 and the process would be complete no later than June 2017.

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