A ‘small’ Seaway point

by Nelson Zandbergen

Seaway District High School would be permanently re-purposed as an amalgamated elementary school and overhauled to eliminate remaining excess student space, Dundas County trustee Jeremy Armer earnestly advised parents gathered Oct. 18 in Winchester. Except the South Mountain resident had to backtrack on that confident assertion a few days later when questioned if this contradicted the Upper Canada District School Board report driving the process.

In the trustee’s defence, the “Building for the Future initial staff report” is a tad muddled on the future of the Iroquois-based high school building — in the event Seaway students are shipped off aboard banana buses to Prescott and Chesterville to complete their public education. Would their old school become the permanent or temporary home of their younger brothers and sisters, next fall?

The final outcome for Upper Canada District School Board assets in Iroquois “really depends on government funding,” Armer explained in an Oct. 24 telephone call, describing the report as “a starting point.”

Saying he had spoken with Superintendent Phil Dawes on the matter, Armer acknowledged “it’s possible they might do a renovation on Iroquois Public School (IPS), or on Seaway as well. It really depends on government funding.”

But does this either-or proposition fit with what the report proposes for South Dundas?

Emptied of its current Grade 7 to 12 complement, the vacated high school would be pressed into service to “temporarily” house the merged populations of Morrisburg and Iroquois public schools while an addition is built at nearby IPS to accommodate all of the elementary youngsters. At least that’s according to a page 9 summary of the report’s recommendations. It states those students would be “accommodated temporarily at Seaway D.H.S. until an addition is completed at Iroquois School in accordance with the Capital Priorities Plan.” Page 11 of the report also lists Iroquois as an anticipated site for “addition and significant renovation.”

But when Armer addressed the Association of Dundas School Councils meeting, there was no hint of renovating or expanding IPS. He only spoke about permanently “retrofitting” the Seaway building to accommodate 470 elementary pupils. Intriguingly, he acknowledged this wasn’t much higher than the current population of intermediate and secondary students now studying at Seaway — and still significantly less than the building’s current capacity of 690. And he very briefly referred to ministry guidelines that make it possible to reduce a school’s excess capacity through renovation.

Now, hold on a second, here. Last things first: If it’s possible to cut a school’s recognized capacity, how many of the board’s 10,000 excess student spaces could be “solved” in this way, without shutting schools? Would it be theoretically possible to similarly erase the unneeded student space at Seaway while leaving it as a Grade 7-12 high school? And what would be the least involved renovation to reduce a school’s capacity in the eyes of the ministry? I’m told that provincial guidelines disallow darkened hallways and unoccupied classrooms, but who knows, might there be a happy medium between a million-dollar overhaul and locking off an empty wing? For that matter, might it even be as simple as turning the key in a classroom door to get those ministry brownie points?

Of course, figuring out ways to keep schools open with smaller numbers doesn’t fit with the super-school philosophy that has taken root at board headquarters. They’re not likely to look into it. Over the years, public school administrators have rather successfully marketed the notion that once a school shrinks to the point of having split grades — arguably the hallmark of a truly wonderful learning environment — it becomes something akin to an abomination. To some degree, they’re just responding now to a demand they helped foster amid declining enrollment. When given a choice, many parents have demonstrated an eagerness to put even primary-age kids on buses to attend bigger schools outside of their own communities in pursuit of programming sold to them as beneficial. Building for the Future follows a trail already blazed to its logical conclusion.

Back to the muddled nature of what’s proposed for the Seaway and IPS buildings: Read deeper into the report, and the final proposed recommendation on the subject says, “Iroquois School (K-6) be rebuilt, timeline is pending Capital Plan decisions.” To me, this only verifies what’s said in the earlier summary. But apparently, some choose to interpret the rebuilt “Iroquois School” as referring to either facility. Perhaps this is a possible point of view. And it may even make more sense to renovate Seaway into a permanent combined elementary school if South Dundas sadly loses its fight to keep its high schoolers. In the grand scheme, this is just one small point out of so many others as the UCDSB ponders amputating 29 schools.

However, staff and trustees would do well to avoid the perception of making de facto amendments to a foundational report before the process of consulting the public has even started. Conversely, if they really wish to change what the report says — even to add clarity — they should have the courage to try and amend it with a vote at the Board of Trustees table.

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