Prov­ince tweaks school clos­ing rules

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - LOCAL NEWS - JEN­NIFER BIEMAN POST­MEDIA NEWS

Seven months down the drain. Long-awaited On­tario draft guide­lines on how school boards go about clos­ing half-empty schools are get­ting a frosty re­cep­tion from trustees, ru­ral school ad­vo­cates and Queen’s Park crit­ics alike.

Not lost on some crit­ics, ei­ther, is that On­tario is head­ing into a June elec­tion, with the di­vi­sive is­sue of school clos­ings — about 600 schools are on their death beds — sure to be­come a cam­paign is­sue.

On­tario’s Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion qui­etly re­leased the draft, nearly seven months af­ter an about-face on its old rules — the sec­ond over­haul in three years — that brought school clos­ings to a halt across On­tario.

The re­vised draft guide­lines aren’t a ground­break­ing de­par­ture from the old ones, said the chair­per­son of South­west­ern On­tario’s largest school board, calling it a rel­a­tively mi­nor re­jig­ging that wasn’t worth the ma­jor dis­rup­tion and de­lays the over­haul caused.

“A lot of the things they have iden­ti­fied in here are al­ready things that are hap­pen­ing,” Matt Reid of the Thames Val­ley Dis­trict school board said Mon­day. “They’re al­ready best prac­tices in Thames Val­ley.” The board, one of On­tario’s largest, was try­ing to grap­ple with 15,000 empty stu­dent spa­ces when the prov­ince abruptly halted all school clos­ing and con­sol­i­da­tion re­views pend­ing a guide­line over­haul.

Across South­west­ern On­tario, be­tween a dozen school boards, about 55,000 stu­dent desks are empty.

“What’s frus­trat­ing, from my per­spec­tive, is de­lay­ing this has cost the board well over $5 mil­lion po­ten­tially, if clos­ings ac­tu­ally were able to have gone for­ward,” Reid said, adding the moves are nec­es­sary to of­fer more class op­tions for high school stu­dents.

“At the small schools we re­ally have a lot of dif­fi­culty pro­vid­ing all the core cour­ses, let alone cour­ses like law or so­ci­ol­ogy.”

Among other changes, the new guide­lines slightly ex­tend the time frame for school clos­ing re­views, which also in­clude de­ci­sions on at­ten­dance bound­ary changes and build­ing new fa­cil­i­ties.

The fi­nal rules are ex­pected out this spring, guide­lines boards will use to fash­ion their own poli­cies. The min­istry, which posted the draft on­line, will col­lect pub­lic in­put un­til March 23.

Ru­ral school ad­vo­cate and for­mer Lon­don-area Lib­eral MPP Doug Rey­craft, who chairs the Com­mu­nity Schools Al­liance, will be among those mak­ing sub­mis­sions to the min­istry.

He said he’s not sur­prised by the draft rules, but that they don’t go far enough to pro­tect small schools or sin­gle-school com­mu­ni­ties.

Rey­craft wanted to see longer time lines than the min­i­mums in the draft and is dis­ap­pointed the prov­ince didn’t pro­duce rec­om­men­da­tions on fos­ter­ing com­mu­nity part­ner­ships.

“One of the main ob­jec­tives, right from our for­ma­tion in 2009, has been to fos­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion and bet­ter work­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween school boards and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties,” he said. “I don’t see any­thing in the new guide­lines that moves the yard stick on that is­sue.”

With the hot-but­ton is­sue back in play, one that’s di­vided com­mu­ni­ties and pit par­ents against boards, school clos­ings are bound to be­come an is­sue in On­tario’s June elec­tion, one critic says.

“For ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in par­tic­u­lar, the school is much more than a ve­hi­cle to de­liver ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents. It is truly a hub in the com­mu­nity, it is an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment tool,” said Lon­don West MPP Peggy Sat­tler, the NDP ed­u­ca­tion critic at Queen’s Park. - The Lon­don Free Press

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