‘Are 29 schools going to close? Probably not.’ says EA to Ont. rural affairs minister

Grant Crack, parliamentary assistant to the Ontario agriculture, food and rural affairs minister, speaks on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016 during an awards ceremony in Morrisburg, Ont. Crack says the final decision on school closures is up to the school boards but he believes not all schools highlighted in the report will be closed. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

MORRISBURG – The executive assistant (EA) to the Ontario rural affairs minister says it will be up to the elected trustees to make the final decision on potential school closures.

Grant Crack, who is also MPP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, spoke with Cornwall Newswatch in Morrisburg following an awards ceremony Thursday night.

Crack said he has faith that elected trustees will make the best decision for the communities they serve.

“Are things going to stay the same? Probably not. Are 29 schools going to close across the district? Probably not. Are solutions available? I believe there are,” Crack said when asked about his thoughts on the Building For The Future report.

He ruled out the possibility the changing the entire school board structure – a proposal by former SD&G District School Board trustee Ken Maclennan.

“We’re not looking at this point (of) changing the fundamentals of the boards and the system of how it works,” Crack said.

Crack said he’s dealt with school closures before when a school in Lefaivre with 29 students closed and they were send to Alfred. “Parents are upset. The school closed. Now I don’t hear anything. They travelled another 10 or 15 minutes to Alfred, and they’re getting that better learning experience. They’ve got sports teams, arts and music and the numbers warrant it.”

“We do not want to fund empty spaces,” Crack said, while suggesting that they’ve encouraged school boards in the past to lease empty space.

“But at the end of the day, as enrollment continues to decline, the focus is on the educational experience and that the busing is reasonable. We understand what reasonable is,” he said.

Crack said it was up to the board to decide what is reasonable. “So if they come to us and say that three hours is reasonable. We all know that’s not reasonable. You have to determine what is best for the students considering the economic impact of each individual community involved.”

A number of the school recommendations from the Upper Canada District School Board are continent on funding from the province to build new schools. Crack was adamant the money is there to build more facilities.

‘I don’t need to scream and yell’

Crack was asked why he’s been largely silent on the issue when compared to his Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry counterpart, Jim McDonell.

“This is our government policy. I’ve been on the file since day one. I don’t need to scream and yell and have people sign petitions. I work with people. That’s my style. Am I quiet? Perhaps, if you’re looking at Facebook and Twitter. But I have not been quiet in my own caucus. I’ve been not quiet with the minister of education. I’ve not been quiet with the premier’s office and we’re making some progress,” he said.

“To the critics, I’d would say let’s take a look at the end results and if you feel you still want to criticize and it’s warranted, then I will accept that.”

Crack said he hasn’t been loud in the Liberal caucus but has put forward “reasonable arguments” to offer more information on the importance of rural schools and rural communities.

“Something like Alexandria – Glengarry District High School. Do I think there’s a solution to keep a high school there and amalgamate it with some lower grades and/or in partnership with another school board? I absolutely believe that there are options that can be looked at to provide a solution,” Crack said.

“Is it going to remain the same? I would say probably not. Is there a solution? Yes, I believe there is,” the MPP said of all schools in the district.

Crack said the school closure report was done “in my opinion, (by) a company that’s, respectfully, not on the ground in the different communities.” He also inferred that the report didn’t take into consideration all aspects such as economic development and economic impact to local communities. “That’s yet to be determined and that’s why these consultations are important for local mayors and local councillors to be part of the solution.”

The rural affairs minister said he’s not going to interfere in the process.

“Are there solutions out there? I firmly believe there are. Are 29 schools going to close? I firmly believe there won’t be. Do I believe the board wants to make the right decision? I absolutely believe the board wants to make the best decisions for their communities.”