Pushback against school closure proposal ramps up; protest planned Friday in Cornwall

Seaway District High School has supporters who are rallying to prevent its proposed closure. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

SD&G — Pushback against the Upper Canada District School Board’s proposed closure of dozens of rural Eastern Ontario schools gathered steam last week and continues to gain momentum, while area politicians encourage the affected communities to work collectively on common strategy.

Public discord with the proposal has even sparked plans for a protest this Friday outside Bridgewood Public School in Cornwall, coinciding with a gathering of school board officials attending a ribbon-cutting for the board’s new, multi-million-dollar facility on Nick Kaneb Drive.

“The school communities need to work together,” MPP Jim McDonell emphatically declared at the Oct. 8 Stormont County Plowing Match, two days after he attended a public meeting at Char-Lan District High School — one of the secondary schools targeted for closure — an event that drew 400 people.

The MPP said the board’s proposal to spend $100-million upgrading or building new schools, after closing a slew of others, would be better invested keeping schools open in the first place.

South Stormont Mayor Jim Bancroft, also attending the plowing match, similarly emphasized the need to get the word out about efforts to prevent the proposed closures — which would see Longue Sault Public School and the high school portion of Ingleside’s Rothwell-Osnabruck shut down in his township. The R-O parent council met with Bancroft and Deputy Mayor Tammy Hart on Oct. 6 — three days after the mayor issued an open letter excoriating the closure proposal as a “devastating blow” to South Stormont.

Meanwhile, the affected communities continue to meet and formulate their own plans, often organizing around Facebook pages. The “Save Rothwell-Osnabruck Secondary School” group plans a public meeting 7 p.m. next Monday (Oct. 17) at the school, according to member Jennifer MacIsaac, while the “Save our Seaway” campaign will host its second public meeting this Wednesday evening (Oct. 12) 6:30 p.m. at the Iroquois high school. According to comments on that group’s Facebook page, those unhappy with the planned closure of Seaway District High School are among those planning to protest in Cornwall later this week.

Parent councils at both Morrisburg and Iroquois public schools will also conduct a joint meeting tonight (Oct. 11) to “see how we can assist the goal of saving Seaway,” according to a post by Joyce Latulippe on the Facebook page.

Under the board’s proposal, Morrisburg Public School would close, sending those students to Iroquois at the start of the 2017 school year. Initially, the student body at the amalgamated Iroquois Public School would move into the emptied Seaway building while capital improvements are undertaken at the elementary school building a stone’s throw away. It comprises one small element of the proposal that shocked the region when released prior to the board’s Sept. 28 meeting.

The approved staff report proposes closing as many as 16 schools at the end of the current school year,  with an additional 13 schools being considered for the chopping block afterward.

The UCDSB intends to make its final decision on the stunning slate of proposed school closures on March 23, after a so-called “pupil accommodation review” (PAR) process set to launch next month. The board calls the exercise Building for the Future.

At Queen’s Park last week, McDonell urged the Minister of Education to “ensure the community’s voices in the upcoming consultations … are taken into consideration” during the PAR process.

Under changes initiated by the provincial government last year, the Board need only consider “value to the student” and the “value to the board” in any decision to close schools. But the previous guidelines would have forced the board to also consider “value to the community” and “value to the local economy,” McDonell noted in the Legislature. He placed the change in line with rural Ontario being “deprived of a voice” on matters like the Green Energy Act and the closure of the Kemptville Agricultural School.

“Now they are doing it again with the Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines and local schools. How can this Government look rural Ontarians in the eye and tell them, with a straight face, that their concerns will be listened to when they’ve removed the Board’s obligation to do so?”

McDonell insisted that “rural education isn’t just about a board’s bottom line. Local schools are vital to rural family values, community spirit and the pride of our youth.  Many schools in our area score very well in published rankings which is an attracting factor for prospective residents. By reducing the Board’s tax base and removing local community voices from key decisions such as school closures, this government is dealing a massive blow to the viability of rural Ontario communities.”

This article was edited to reflect the upcoming R-O public meeting, and to make clear that the Cornwall protest is intended to coincide with a gathering of school board officials.


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