Motion defeated 8-3; school closure plan proceeding to next steps

Dundas County trustee Jeremy Armer (left) opposed rescinding the Upper Canada District School Board's closure plan, Oct. 12.

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

IROQUOIS — Former Iroquois reeve John McAllister failed last night to put the brakes on the Upper Canada District School Board’s push to shut down and consolidate many schools in the region —  including Iroquois-based Seaway District High School where McAllister taught for 32 years.

In his capacity as trustee for the Gananoque and Thousand Islands area, McAllister introduced a motion to rescind the board’s Sept. 28 decision to kick off a “Pupil Accommodation Review” (PAR) process that envisions closing 16 Eastern Ontario schools at the end of this school year. Seconded by the trustee for Stormont and Glengarry counties, Wendy MacPherson, the motion went down to an 8-3 defeat after some testy exchanges around the board table in Brockville.

“I remind everyone that the conversation must be respectful,” said board chair Jeff McMillan as debate began, adding he would limit discussion to the motion itself. “This is about a motion to rescind our motion to move forward.”

The potential reset was brought forward as public pushback against the board’s plan — contained in the previously approved staff report “Building for the Future” —  has begun to ratchet up pressure on trustees.

McAllister observed that the board’s recent shifting of grade 7 and 8 students into high schools coincided with its current situation. “Predictably, the result is two fewer grades in most elementary schools and the subsequent and sudden drop in enrollment,” he said to open the debate livestreamed on the Internet. “This has left our elementary schools in a more vulnerable state, one we are attempting to address in this Pupil Accommodation Report.”

The trustee clarified that he wasn’t opposed to undertaking the review process in light of declining enrollment and a “budget gap” resulting from recent changes in the provincial funding model. “These changes … forced boards to focus on using education resources and facilities to support students, rather than supporting school space that may be surplus to student’s education needs.”

Careful to say that senior staff had done their jobs properly in producing the previously approved report, McAllister nonetheless explained that he had 10 major concerns with the document. Its scope was too broad, he argued, “and attempts to address too many issues, such as boundary realignments and school closures.” It also forgot to take into consideration the “very strong historical, cultural, and traditional associations within the various communities,” he said.

The report was also “overly optimistic” in predicting Ministry of Education approval for proposed capital upgrades that are part of the plan, according to McAllister.

Remaining concerns with the report laid out by the trustee included:

  • Its failure to consider “demographic reasons that parents settle in certain communities.”
  • Its failure to properly consider the impact of school closures in smaller communities.
  • Its failure to consult with the involved communities beyond inviting municipal CAO’s to a single meeting. “Our mayors and councillors ought to have been briefed much more formally and directly about the process which was to unfold.”
  • Its failure to sufficiently inform “in a timely manner” the involved school councils. “This group of volunteers deserves better.”
  • Too little time to properly consult with the public, with only two public meetings planned;
  • Its failure to address the board’s Feb. 26, 2014 resolution permitting realignments to foster early French Immersion in some schools. “Such a consideration might well have alleviated an enrollment crisis and created a more balanced alignment in certain areas of the board.”

McAllister concluded with the words of a parent who spoke to him a day earlier:  “I just strongly feel that this is the time to start looking at education differently, and if any board can and should be the leader, it is the Upper Canada District School Board.”

“That’s quite a challenge and one we should not forget in any report,” he observed, adding he believed a new report should be delivered for the board’s consideration. “I have every confidence our senior staff can find a way to succeed.”

Director of Education Stephen Sliwa confirmed that timelines are tight but are set by the Ministry of Education. He added the board is engaged in the “full” PAR process of five months instead of a shortened three-month option that’s also available under the “new normal” now in effect for closing Ontario schools.

Delaying now could force another school year without change, Sliwa suggested, because of a legally mandated deadline to begin discussions with unions on staffing requirements for the 2017-18 school year. The board’s anticipated March 23 decision on school closures would occur only slightly ahead of when those discussions must start. The board must also allow for three months of budget deliberations before the upcoming school year, once it knows how many schools it will be operating, according to Sliwa.

“At the heart of this is … when a board makes a final decision … the overall objective from staff in delivering this report is to try to exempt the board from having to have these tough conversations annually for the next five years and even the next 10 years,” he said.

Sliwa also assured the trustees that fewer schools than the 29 listed in the report may be ultimately considered for closure at their March 23 meeting, following the PAR consultations. “It could be 28 schools, it could 8 schools, it could be two schools.”

But trustee Wendy MacPherson said she was “not convinced we’re not putting ourselves in a position to be challenged” because the approved report does not address a ministry stipulation for the board to explain how it would fund envisioned capital upgrades in the absence of provincial grants. “We need to rescind this, start over, do it right, do it fair, so that we don’t put ourselves in a position where our timelines will be really destroyed because of a challenge.”

Lisa Swan, trustee for Edwardsburgh-Cardinal, North Grenville and Prescott, was the third member of the trio who favoured rescinding the report, pointedly saying she never supported it in the first place. “Accepting this report and its proposal to close many schools was disheartening in my opinion to say the least,” said Swan.

Dundas County trustee Jeremy Armer voted with the majority against the McAllister motion. He asked about the legal ramifications of halting the process already underway, hinting it could force a five-year pause. “Does that mean we no longer can review those schools that potentially need to be reviewed?” he asked. “And so, my worry is that we’re putting ourselves as a board … and not doing our fiduciary responsibility with our finances. Because boy, that would put us in a bind.”

But the chair said he understood that if the process stopped now, “All we would do is re-engage and start it again.”

Sliwa said he would have to look further into the question because there was no other example in Ontario of a board quitting a PAR process before it finished.

The board vote was highly anticipated 50 km away in Iroquois, where the ‘Save our Seaway’ group gathered that same evening to discuss strategy on preventing the closure of that high school.

In front of an audience of 150 people gathered in the cafeteria, emcee Marc St. Pierre expressed hope that McAllister’s motion would carry and remove the immediate threat to Seaway. But another man in the crowd pointed out that even if the board rescinded the closure plan that evening, the community must remain ready to defend their school at a moment’s notice.

Below is the video of last night’s UCDSB board of trustees’ meeting. The debate on McAllister’s motion begins around 2:00:00.

 

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