CORNWALL – From aspects of rural life to alternatives on saving rural schools, nine presenters made their case to the Upper Canada District School Board’s accommodation review committee Monday night.
The meeting at the former General Vanier Secondary School in Cornwall saw 500-600 people come for the first of two public meetings on the future of the Cornwall, Stormont and Glengarry schools.
North Glengarry councillor Jeff Manley was the first to present, sharing preliminary findings from their independent township study on the economic fallout of potentially closing two of their three schools.
Manley said the areas of Maxville and Alexandria stand to lose $5 million annually, which would be “absolutely devastating” for a township with a $13 million budget. He said home values would likely fall 20 per cent with no schools there to attract families.
Ian McLeod, mayor of South Glengarry, told the ARC, losing schools in the township would “gut the social and economic fabric” of the community. The township is asking for a one year moratorium on school closures.
Like South Glengarry, South Stormont Director of Planning, Peter Young, said their township would like a one year moratorium too. Young said, with Long Sault among the fastest growing communities, the “decisions don’t seem to be coordinated.”
Jim Brownell, a former Liberal MPP, took aim at his political alma mater calling the accommodation review plan nothing more than the provincial government using the children as “pawns” and was an “assault” by the Ministry of Education on rural schools. “The province has provided a direct assault on rural Ontario students,” he said to cheers from the audience.
Brownell acknowledged and thanked Progressive Conservative MPP Jim McDonell for being in the crowd.
At one point during the night, there appeared a locking of horns between advocates for North Stormont and South Stormont schools.
Following a presentation by Joanne Haley on Tagwi Secondary School and protecting the boundaries for the school, ARC representative Jennifer MacIsaac, representing Rothwell-Osnabruck S.S., challenged some of the points in her presentation.
While Haley framed her three proposals as alternatives to work with neighbouring schools and “keep rural students rural,” MacIsaac asked why Rothwell-Osnabruck should be torn down when it has the best facility condition index (FCI), seemingly pitting Rothwell-Osnabruck against Tagwi Secondary School.
“It’s the board that has proposed to close RO, it’s not Tagwi that has proposed to close RO,” Hailey countered in her final statement.
Martin Lang with the Glengarry Federation of Agriculture highlighted the importance of rural schools in building the next generation of farmers. Lang, a farmer from Williamstown, has a son who’s a seventh generation farmer.
“Rural people need to save our rural schools,” he said. Lang said a bigger super school in Cornwall is not better. With one in eight jobs occurring in the agrifood industry “rural schools are critical for farm families. That time (family time) has to be at home.”
Lang was among a number of presenters to receive a standing ovation from the crowd.
The final presentation was from Angus McRae and Nicholas Danaher on saving Char-Lan District High School with a somewhat lighter affair.
McRae opened the presentation, joking that the audience attended Char-Lan a long time ago, to a roar of laughter from the audience.
“What’s a town with no schools?” Danaher asked.
Both students spoke about their parents commuting great distances to Ottawa and the GTA for work because they wanted their kids to have a good rural school upbringing.
If Char-Lan closed “that will be the death of my beloved town,” McRae said.
Superintendent of Schools Tim Mills closed the night and said the information from the presentations will be included in report to the board in February 2017.
There’s also an online survey, which has already received over 3,000 responses, he said.
A second public meeting in Cornwall will happen January 23, 2017 at the same location.
The accommodation review process could potentially see up to 29 schools across Eastern Ontario close by the end of this school year – 16 directly and another 13 under the right conditions and funding from the Ontario government.
Another ARC meeting is happening tomorrow night (Tuesday, Nov. 15) in Prescott at the South Grenville District High School where the ARC committee there will look at the future of the Grenville, Brockville and Athens schools.
An ARC meeting for the Dundas schools will he held Thursday, Nov. 17 at Seaway District High School in Iroquois.
All the meetings start at 6:30 p.m.