‘ARC-o’ chamber: Everyone agrees, applauds idea of keeping rural schools open

Carleton U. student and Rothwell-Osnabruck graduate Alex MacIsaac speaks out for his old school at the Jan. 23 final 'ARC' meeting in Cornwall on proposed school closures. Behind him is Jason Crites, fellow member of the 'Save South Stormont Schools' lobby. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Seemingly unassailable arguments put forward; but will it make a difference beyond ARC meeting echo chamber?

Nelson Zandbergen 
Nation Valley News

Ayeisha Khan (left) and Brooklyn Woodside present in favour of preserving the existing boundaries for Tagwi Secondary School. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Ayeisha Khan (left) and Brooklyn Woodside present in favour of preserving the existing boundaries for Tagwi Secondary School. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

North Stormont Councillor Jim Wert and Economic Development Officer Amy Martin speak about the threatened "hollowing out" of the Crysler-area economy if Upper Canada District School Board proposals go ahead. Nelson Zandbergen, Nation Valley News

North Stormont Councillor Jim Wert and Economic Development Officer Amy Martin speak about the threatened “hollowing out” of the Crysler-area economy if Upper Canada District School Board proposals go ahead. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

South Stormont Planning Director and Economic Development Officer Peter Young, addressing the municipality's strong growth and continued need for village schools. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

South Stormont Planning Director and Economic Development Officer Peter Young, addressing the municipality’s strong growth and continued need for village schools. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

CORNWALL — Local school supporters burnished their arguments and delivered impassioned pleas last night at the final public meeting of the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) pondering several school closures proposed by the Upper Canada District School Board in the Cornwall, Stormont and Glengarry area.

Medical professionals raised the impact of longer bus rides and fewer sports teams on students’ mental and physical health; Glengarry residents stressed the importance of retaining English-language schooling in that bilingual county; North Stormont officials highlighted a recent dramatic drop in estimated savings of just over $34,000 annually should proposed changes in Berwick and Avonmore proceed; and South Stormont school supporters emphasized the success of at-capacity Long Sault Public School and the board’s only Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 operation at Rothwell-Osnabruck School (R-O) in Ingleside.

The involved ARC group — composed of parents and some principals — will now meet on Thursday of this week to begin drafting their report. That document will be attached as an addendum to actual recommendations being written up by the area’s superintendent of education — which may or may not line up with the conclusions of the committee.

On March 23, Upper Canada District School Board trustees will vote on the recommendations of Superintendent Tim Mills and three other superintendents overseeing five regional ARC consultations that conclude this month. Twenty-nine schools in the UCDSB are on the chopping block, under the ‘Building for the Future’ process launched by the board — to the shock of the region — last September.

This week’s final public meeting for ‘ARC 2B’ — the so-called Cornwall and Highland family of schools — drew an audience of a few hundred people to the General Vanier School campus.

“Our solution is easy … it’s bring back French Immersion for all grades at R-O that existed until 2013, so that students don’t have to bus over the boundary for that programming,” said Longue Sault Public School parent Jason Crites who, along with recent R-O graduate Alex MacIsaac, presented on behalf of the ‘Save South Stormont Schools’ that aims to prevent the proposed closure of LSPS (which does have French Immersion) and removal of high schoolers from R-O.

That prescription would keep LSPS’s current occupancy rate at 96 percent and raise R-O’s to 97 percent, Crites reported. “Pretty hard numbers to ignore.”

“Long Sault scores above the provincial average in reading and writing, it’s full, the building is in good shape, and operates well,” he observed, adding, “I’m not exactly sure why we’re messing with success here.”

MacIsaac, who attended R-O for all 14 years of his elementary and secondary education, praised his alma mater “as the flagship for JK-to-Grade 12 education in the Upper Canada District School Board.”

“It’s interesting that many schools are now considering” the same model, noted MacIsaac whose mother, Jennifer MacIsaac, sits as a member of the ARC group. “We’ve been doing it this way since the 1980s,” he added.

“At R-O, students received a seamless educational journey from JK to Grade 12, and students have a strong sense of belonging and more than just a number,” he said. “Our elementary students have the opportunity to get to know students and staff before entering high school, which eliminates a lot of the anxiety caused by those transitions. Secondary students act as mentors to our own elementary students.”

South Stormont’s municipal planning director Peter Young also pressed the case for preserving the township’s schools, reiterating how Ontario’s provincial policy statement mandates growth in villages like Ingleside and Long Sault. Young contrasted the board’s proposal with the 400 housing units approved in South Stormont since 2010, with a further 700 units “in the works waiting to come,” he added.

“Our opinion is we need better coordination with our growth plans and what the school board is doing as well,” he remarked, also highlighting that South Stormont is expected to be the largest SD&G municipality by 2030.

Answering the question of whether “South Stormont is too small to have a high school,” the planner cited township research indicating 98 percent of Eastern Ontario municipalities of 10,000 or more people are the location of a publicly funded secondary school. The township could find only one other community where the rule failed to apply in the province.

Neighbouring North Stormont also presented its case to prevent a realignment of borders that could remove 166 students from Tagwi Secondary School and close down North Stormont Public School, shipping those pupils to Roxmore Public School in Avonmore instead.

“Tagwi is not closing, so why are almost one third of students being redirected to schools in Cornwall in September 2017?” asked Ayeisha Khan, who co-presented with Brooklyn Woodside on the plight of the Avonmore-based high school they both attend.

“The thought of having to go to a new school has been an added and unneeded stress in my life this year,” said Woodside, in Grade 11. “Keeping up with studies and being involved with extracurricular activities inside and outside of school takes up a lot of time. The fact that Tagwi is not closing but I could possibly be redirected to a new school simply doesn’t make sense.”

She vowed not to attend an UCDSB high school in Cornwall if the board shifts boundaries to put Tagwi out of bounds for her Grade 12 year. “If this boundary change is approved, I’ll be registering at St. Joseph’s Secondary School.”

North Stormont Councillor Jim Wert and Economic Development Officer Amy Martin drew attention to the Crysler-area’s impending “hollowing out” if North Stormont Public School is shut down in Berwick and those students shifted to Roxmore Public School in Avonmore.

Martin said that R.P.S. was already 97 percent full and required “little capital investment over the next 10 years,” while N.S.P.S. ranked third in the school board academic achievement – and 391st provincially.

“It currently has 84 students and provides excellent academic programming,” she said, adding it enjoyed additional opportunities to host more community services. Adding dual-track French Immersion to N.S.P.S. would help attract more growth to the Crysler area, a place where over 200 dwellings are in the process of being developed, she added.

Like other presenters the North Stormont duo cited multi-million-dollar implications of school closures, as tallied by hired consultant Doyletech Corporation.

“We stand firm in believing that parents and students should have the right to continue to choose where they go to school,” said Martin to applause.

The savings to the board by making envisioned changes in North Stormont amounted to just over $34,000 per year, she reported. “Based on these numbers, I ask myself: Is it truly worth it to decimate two communities to save a small amount of money?”

A member of the delegation from neighbouring North Glengarry — trying to save Maxville Public School and Glengarry District High School — bluntly addressed the bottom line. To applause, North Glengarry Councillor Brian Caddell, a former teacher, declared:  “I can hardly express how deeply saddened I am today that the organization which I joined to help young people make a good start in their lives is now the very organization that puts money first and people second.”

“In pursuit of these closures, the Upper Canada District School Board can destroy rural communities, put students at a disadvantage in their everyday lives, and leave young families with a bleak future for their children’s education, all for the sake of money,” said Caddell, who challenged the board “to stand up and ensure that they put people first. You will decide. This will be your decision, this will be your legacy. Please put people first and save our rural schools and our rural communities.”

Among those spotted politely applauding Caddell’s comments was Stephen Sliwa, UCDSB Director of Education. Several board officials were sprinkled throughout audience while parents on the ARC panel sat opposite the crowd as “conduits of information” back to the board.

They also heard from medical professionals who argued that transporting students long distances to school was unhealthy physically and mentally. Another healthcare professional from Hawkesbury pointedly noted that Eastern Ontario’s suicide rate is already 30 percent higher than the provincial average.

And at least one comment from the floor — a man urging preservation of Char-Lan District High School — lent the impression that some citizens still hold the incorrect impression that ARC panelists will deliberate among themselves to decide the fate of local schools. That possible misunderstanding clearly disturbed one of the parent members who later approached Nation Valley News to reiterate that their only task is to relay information back to the board — while superintendents will make the actual final recommendations and reports that trustees will vote upon March 23. “We don’t get to say what’s going in the report,” the panelist emphasized. Expressing discomfort at the pleading tone occasionally directed at committee members during the meeting, the individual betrayed some fear that members will be blamed by the public if the board opts to close schools. “At the end of the process, I didn’t save a school or close a school,” the ARC member insisted. “None of us wants to close schools.”

The individual also said that some ARC members arrived early for the meeting to avoid having to walk through the crowd on their way down to the head table, such is the discomfort of the situation.

The next final ARC meeting is set Jan. 31 at Seaway District High School to discuss proposals in the Dundas County family of schools.

Update: This article was edited to reflect South Stormont planning director Peter Young’s assertion that 98 percent of Eastern Ontario municipalities of 10,000 or more people have high schools. According to Young, 44 of 45 municipalities of that size in the broader region fall into that category.

 


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