Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter “listens” and tours targeted-for-closure schools; no hint of intervening to save schools

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, accompanied by Jim Brownell (left), tours Longue Sault Public School yesterday. Courtesy Facebook photo by Dale Rudderham

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

SOUTH STORMONT — Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter offered no hint of intervening to prevent the Upper Canada District School Board’s proposed school closures when she visited three of the targeted sites yesterday.

So how should the community read her presence at Longue Sault Public School, Char-Lan District High School, and Glengarry District High School — as a subtle sign of disapproval for the UCDSB’s plans, or a show of resounding support for the proposed closures?

In a statement issued to Nation Valley News Jan. 10, Hunter sidestepped those specific questions but emphasized her desire to “listen.” She also vouched for the ongoing Accommodation Review Committee consultative process.

“The best results come when school boards, parents and teachers all work together to ensure that students are provided with the best possible classroom experience,” said the minister by email. “As I met with parents, educators and students from the Upper Canada District School Board, my priority was to listen as the local community works towards finding solutions to their unique challenges that ensures students receive the best programming.

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, Scarborough-Guildwood MPP.

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, Scarborough-Guildwood MPP.

“The changes made to the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline ensure that boards consult with municipal and community organizations so that everyone has an opportunity to provide meaningful input on accommodation decisions. While communities continue to find the best possible decisions for their region, I am confident that school boards will continue to work together and find solutions that focus resources on better learning opportunities for students.”

Dale Rudderham — member of the ARC committee for Longue Sault Public School and part of the entourage as the minister toured that school Jan. 10 — agreed the minister “was just listening.” Although he doesn’t foresee Hunter’s intervention on the process, Rudderham saw her visit as “a positive sign” demonstrating a “willingness to understand the situation.”

He added, “She did indicate that rural schools have value. I wouldn’t expect she single-handedly stop the process, however, I believe her presence will have senior staff at the UCDSB on their toes when formulating a final proposal.”

Rudderham also credited the minister with compelling a visit by senior UCDSB officials to the targeted schools, observing that Hunter’s presence “facilitated school board senior staff to visit the schools, something that hasn’t happened as part of the closure process.”

The area’s former Liberal MPP Jim Brownell also accompanied the minister on her stop at LSPS — as well as other schools — and Rudderham attributed Hunter’s foray into Eastern Ontario to “Brownell’s influence.” Also a former longtime teacher at LSPS, Brownell is an outspoken critic of the proposed closures of South Stormont schools in particular.

Brownell’s political successor, MPP Jim McDonell, along with South Stormont Mayor Jim Bancroft, Councillor Donna Primeau and local trustee Wendy MacPherson and UCDSB Chair Jeff McMillan also toured LSPS with the minister. (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP Grant Crack, part of the same Liberal caucus as Hunter, also joined the minister for part of the tour.)

Also on hand for Hunter’s other stops — including Cornwall Collegiate Vocational School — McDonell similarly viewed her interest as a potentially positive development. “She seemed to enjoy visiting the schools that are subject to closure, all the schools she visited,” said McDonell.  “So she was happy with what she saw, so I’m hoping that, really, she intervenes and gives the board somewhat of a break. They’re now trying to enforce some government policies that make it very hard to keep schools open.”

This sign — and others in Williamstown — greeted Education Minister Mitzie Hunter's visit to Char-Lan District High School, slated for closure by the Upper Canada District School Board. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

This sign — and others in Williamstown — greeted Education Minister Mitzie Hunter’s visit to Char-Lan District High School, slated for closure by the Upper Canada District School Board. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

McDonell said the minister also remembered meeting with the Char-Lan delegation at Queen’s Park late last year, during her stop at that school yesterday.  “So I’m thinking she got an appreciation of the rural schools and what we’re dealing with, and that they’re second to none. You look at Longue Sault Public; it’s over 90 percent full,” the MPP said.

But if Hunter “steps back and doesn’t do anything,” the UCDSB will proceed under current rules that prohibit consideration of the impact on community and the local economy, he pointed out. “So we’ll still work on having the minister review some of the negatives of closing these schools.”

“I think she got a good appreciation of what a rural school is or is not…. They’re caring because the teachers know the kids because the schools are small for that,” and yet those same schools produce excellent academic results, McDonell said.

To prevent closures, the Tory MPP has advocated that rural and northern schools be treated as a special funding case — similar to the way French boards receive 150 percent funding per student.

But when asked about that idea in an email, the minister deferred to Ministry of Education spokesperson Heather Irwin, who highlighted existing support for rural education. “We have made changes to the funding formula to reflect the unique needs of rural Ontario,” explained Irwin.

According to the spokesperson, those changes include

  • increased funding to support the higher cost of purchasing goods and services for small and rural school boards;
  • increased funding for transportation which supports the greater distances travelled in rural areas;
  • top-up supports for rural schools to fund the heating, lighting and maintenance costs of excess spaces in schools that are a considerable distance from the next closest school.
  • new factors that reflect distance and dispersion of schools in the distribution of special education funding in 2014-15, aligned with the Remote and Rural Allocation in the GSN, as well as increased funding allocated for the remote and rural adjustment in special education;
  • funding for additional principals in schools that combine elementary and secondary students, and recognition of the need for greater supports in schools that are a considerable distance from the next closest school—both of which benefit rural schools.
  • increased investment of nearly $200 million in rural schools since 2012-2013.

Hunter’s boss, Premier Kathleen Wynne, weighed in on the subject of proposed Eastern Ontario school closures for Nation Valley News last fall.

 

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