We can’t let rural school boards take the fall for the government

Last week at Queen’s Park (Oct. 31)

by MPP Jim McDonell

Last week, the government continued to brag about its new power supply deal with Quebec, trumpeting $70 million in savings over the next 7 years. However, the Minister of Energy let it slip on CFRA that it amounted to a 10-cent savings, then refused to quantify the impact of this new deal for an average household despite repeated requests by the host. The reason was clear: the impact only amounts to a savings per household of just 10 cents per month. The deal is obviously meant to take the heat off of the government, as they are once again refusing to disclose the real relevant details to the public.  With hydro bills up hundreds of dollars a month, it is an embarrassment to tell families that the best the government can do is a 10 cent savings.

The cause of this disparity is clear: Ontario’s electricity grid is overloaded with overpaid energy we don’t need. Ontario’s power deal with Quebec is not built on a principle of affordability, but rather on an attempt to deflect away from the real problem of waste, mismanagement, scandal and the purchase of expensive power we don’t need.  In just the past week, it’s been revealed that the Government wasted more than $215 million on consultants, accounting errors, lawsuits, and legal fees. It is time the government stopped pursuing their failed energy schemes, levelled with the ratepayers, and focused on bringing power rates down. I challenged the government on their bungling of the Quebec deal.  You can view the video of my Question Period exchange with the Premier and the Minister at www.jimmcdonellmpp.ca/videos.

In the House, our Leader Patrick Brown brought forward another Opposition Day Motion demanding the government stop signing unaffordable wind and solar energy supply contracts, restore municipal planning powers that were taken away by the Green Energy Act, and stop the sale of shares of Hydro One. Ontarians deserve real action on hydro rates rather than the half-measures we’ve seen so far, which are designed more to garner media praise than to actually achieve good outcomes for the province. Disappointingly, both the Liberals and the New Democrats voted against the motion.

In Committee, the Government used their majority to push Bill 2, the Election Finances Amendment Act, which changes fundraising and campaign spending rules in the province. My colleague Randy Hillier and I, on behalf of the PC Caucus, tried to ensure the Committee was fully apprised of the significant amendments to the Bill that the government had still not released, despite announcing them back in August.  Only when their rushed schedule became in jeopardy did they relent and release their list of intended amendments. To no one’s surprise, the amendments did not include all the points that the government had very publicly promised. Moreover, the Liberal members voted down our request for the Chief Electoral Officer to be given appropriate time to address the committee on the impacts of the proposed amendments.  He has advocated for changes to Ontario’s election finance law for years and, as an independent officer of the Legislature, provides an important perspective.  This government must realize that key legislation that changes our voting process, such as Bill 2, should be examined by the public and experts, and their advice heard.

The planned closure of many of our UCDSB schools continues to rally our community like never before. The plan before us closes almost all our rural high schools and buses students long distances to schools outside their communities.  The board is responding to recent cuts in funding and revised guidelines by our Liberal government that no longer allow the board to consider the impact of the schools on the community or the economy.  In addition, these new funding rules make the replacement of older high-maintenance schools that are beyond their useful lives almost impossible unless they are also filled beyond their capacity, generally requiring numerous portables.  As we can see, this plan does exactly that by busing hundreds of students in from outside areas, exhausting the capacities at the Cornwall and Vankleek Hill high schools.  The board would then be allowed to apply for funding for a planned new 2000-student replacement school in Cornwall, and an extension in Vankleek Hill.  The new school/addition  would allow for the closure of Glengarry District and the two Cornwall high schools.

This plan contains many issues that all concerned need to consider.  First, from the results of this and the Boundary 2020 study in 2009, highlights the need to replace the aging, costly or surplus infrastructure.  ARC committees at CCVS and St. Lawrence high schools need an opportunity to put forth their community’s input into whether they are best served by one large school or two mediums schools as they are today.  Also, there is the question of General Vanier; what does the board plan to do with it?  Is it available for students, as the space could certainly jeopardize the current plan?  The one-school plan will also limit school extracurricular activities and sports opportunities for students by limiting the number of spots available and the associated extended travel requirements when five local high schools are closed.

For the areas outside the city, the loss of the community high schools will be devastating. Their children will lose out of the extracurricular and sports activities because of the extra busing and travel times required, as well as the reduced spaces caused by the elimination of five area high schools.  Their local minor and senior sports programs will be impacted by the loss of the school’s gym and sport fields. The extra travel time affects after school jobs, on farm chores and the students available time for homework and sports. Most communities use the schools for activities and meeting and training facilities. I see boundary changes that will remove over 185 students from Tagwi High school, and wonder if this is moving us towards the prospect of one high school in the counties and one in the city.

If a new Cornwall high school is needed, then the government needs to be presented with a proper business case for it, plain and simple.  I have already expressed to the board that I will enthusiastically work with them to bring that plan to the Minister of Education and the Premier.  The government crisscrossed the province just last week announcing funding for more than 20 new schools, and it’s time our needs were met without impacting students negatively for years to come. The Board is just the victim of this Government’s disconnect from rural Ontario and its funding cuts.

Parents have told me that if this plan goes through, they will switch boards to ensure their children have a spot in one of the other boards, triggering additional school extensions and causing further erosion of the public board’s base. The government must step up to the plate and map out the future of education in rural Ontario by working with all local school boards, school communities and municipalities. I encourage the residents to write the Premier, the Minister of Education, and the board trustees to request that the Pupil Accommodation Review be suspended and that the province place a moratorium on further rural school closures until this broader consultation is conducted.

We have a unique situation here where families can choose freely amongst a number of educational language options, and that is a good thing. In fact, most countries in the developed world are ensuring their citizens have access to learning two or more languages. On the other hand, we must also ensure that the public board, the only one mandated to provide for all the needs of all students, regardless of where they live and the cost of their educational needs, continues to be viable. If UCDSB is forced to implement the current plan, it would be forced into reducing its own offerings and attractiveness to students, a prospect no school board should ever be faced with. I have written to the Minister of Education requesting that she halt the review until the issues of sustainable rural school funding and proper infrastructure management policies have been addressed. We need to join forces to make the Minister of Education and this government realize that a sustainable funding formula is needed that preserves all communities’ access to education close to home. This problem was created by the provincial government, and we can’t let rural school boards take the fall for them.

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