‘Deep concern’ over school restructuring: warden

The following is an open letter from SD&G Warden Jamie MacDonald to the Upper Canada District School Board in regard to their school restructuring plan:

I am writing to the Board today on behalf of the 66,000 residents of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry to express the deep concern County Council has with the draft recommendations contained within the recently released Pupil Accommodation Review study. SDG is a very large geographical area, and forms a significant part of the UCDSB catchment area.

As elected officials, we represent the interests of all our shared constituents, be they students, parents, educators, or others. We also recognize several things:

• There is a surplus of space in existing UCDSB schools;
• Provincial funding opportunities are in part based on space utilization;
• These are difficult, emotionally-charged issues;
• No decisions regarding school closures have been made – such decisions will be made in early 2017 subsequent to the completion of the public consultation process.

In that context, we are not suggesting changes do not need to be made. Rather, we are suggesting that in formulating decisions regarding school closures, the following factors must be fully considered:

• Rural schools, either primary or secondary, are at the heart of the communities they serve. The character, nature of the student body, and milieu of rural schools are different than schools serving urban or mostly urban catchment areas. Students who attend school in small or rural settings such as Iroquois or Williamstown gain an understanding and appreciation of local history and culture, an important part of what makes small communities close-knit and liveable. This connection will be diminished if students are bussed to urban schools in places such as Cornwall, Prescott, or Vankleek Hill (all of which are outside the geographical and/or political/boundaries of SDG). You will hear this time and time again during the on-going consultations sessions.

• The three other local school boards will be significant beneficiaries of UCDSB school closures. For instance, it is anticipated that the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario stands to gain a significant number of students because of the closures of rural SDG schools. The distinction between public and Catholic education in Ontario is not as distinct as it once was. Students may choose to transfer to the Catholic Board for several reasons, including:
o Greater convenience (e.g. shorter bus rides between home and school). For instance, students who currently attend Char-Lan High School or Williamstown Public school may
transfer to (or eventually attend) Holy Trinity High School rather than be bussed to high school in Cornwall;
o Attend a school where their friends or other students from their communities attend;
o Catholic schools are perceived by some (rightly or wrongly) as having more modern school facilities, better programming (e.g. sports), and greater access to specialized courses, and will gain at the expense of the public system.

• School closures will have negative consequences on other UCDSB schools not under review. For example, why would a parent enroll their child at an English public elementary school in the Alexandria area when there is no local public high school to attend? Enrollment in these feeder schools will continue to decline, forcing further cuts and continuing the downward spiral. Similarly, why would a family consider moving to a community where primary education is available but their child has to travel many kilometres on a school bus to attend secondary school? The short answer is that they probably wouldn’t, meaning the potential loss of newcomers in areas already struggling to attract/retain residents.

• Economic impact to local communities. Small rural schools inject millions of dollars annually into the communities in which they are located, both private sector businesses and public facilities such as arenas, etc. Information is presently being gathered in several local SDG communities about economic impacts. Taking much needed dollars out of rural communities and putting them into urban centres such as Cornwall is another blow to the viability of these communities.

• Timing – in our view, the proposed timing is poor. With the uncertainty around school closures, parents will pre-emptively switch schools or school boards rather than wait for decisions to be made. To that end, decisions should either be made prior to the end of 2016 or deferred to the end of 2017.
In 2016, SDG property taxpayers provided over $20 Million in support of local schools. To that end, we expect that the UCDSB will fully consider all the implications of closing rural schools. We trust that you will work diligently with all those who have a stake in our education system, including local communities, parent/students, parent Councils, elected officials, etc. to find a compromise between declining enrolment/underutilized space and minimizing the impact on rural students.
As a member of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC), a group of upper-tier municipalities which collectively represent over 750,000 residents in Eastern Ontario, SDG has been working on policies that will help our rural communities remain viable. Some of these initiatives include ensuring access to affordable high speed internet and mobile broadband services, equitable access to natural gas, and the affordability of electricity. Closing rural schools runs counter to and diminishes our collective efforts to provide essential services to rural residents.

Our key message is that decisions must reflect what is best for local students, and that rural SDG schools should be not sacrificed at the expense of policies or expediencies that do not fully consider the unique circumstances of our students.

Yours truly,
Jamie MacDonald, Warden