Lob­by­ing to save schools

Sup­port­ers of schools in Whit­bourne, Heart’s De­light make their cases to board mem­bers

The Compass - - OPINION - BY TERRY ROBERTS THE COM­PASS

BLAKE­TOWN – Trus­tees and se­nior staff with the Eastern School Dis­trict lis­tened for nearly four hours on the evening of Oct. 30 as speaker af­ter speaker re­peat­edly called upon board of­fi­cials to re­con­sider a pro­posal to close schools in Whit­bourne and Heart’s De­light-Is­ling­ton.

Some 150 par­ents, students, teach­ers, busi­ness and community lead­ers as­sem­bled at Crescent Col­le­giate for a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion hosted by the dis­trict.

In all, just un­der two dozen peo­ple stepped for­ward, with a vast ma­jor­ity ar­gu­ing against a pro­posal to close Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary and Epiphany El­e­men­tary in Heart’s De­light-Is­ling­ton at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Both are kinder­garten to Grade 6 schools, and are among five ru­ral schools slated to be closed as part of the board’s pro­posed multi-year plan (2011-2014),

Po­lite and pro­fes­sional

With­out ex­cep­tion, the speak­ers were po­lite and pro­fes­sional, but also pas­sion­ate and force­ful in their be­lief that clos­ing the schools will do more harm than good.

Sup­port­ers for both schools pre­sented sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments, stress­ing that the schools pro­vide a pos­i­tive learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for chil­dren, are lo­cated in grow­ing, healthy commu- ni­ties, and are struc­turally sound, suf­fi­ciently staffed and sup­ported by the res­i­dents.

They also pre­dicted that clos­ing the schools would force many chil­dren to en­dure un­nec­es­sar­ily long daily com­mutes on busses, have a neg­a­tive im­pact on ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, in­crease the like­li­hood of bul­ly­ing, take students fur­ther away from vi­tal emer­gency and other ser­vices, and stunt the eco­nomic growth that has been oc­cur­ring in the Whit­bourne and Heart’s De­light ar­eas in re­cent years.

Board trus­tees and se­nior staff lis­tened in­tently as speak­ers listed off the ser­vices and ameni­ties in their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties, and boasted about the deep con­nec­tion they have with their schools.

“They are so happy at (Epiphany),” said Colleen Mur­phy, a mem­ber of the school coun­cil. “My eight-year-old even said he would be quit­ting if his school closes.”

Sev­eral speak­ers urged board mem­bers to put the safety, ed­u­ca­tion and hap­pi­ness of chil­dren ahead of any need to “bal­ance the books.”

Sev­eral par­ents said the pres­ence of a school was a de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in their de­ci­sions to move to the area.

“It had ev­ery­thing we needed. It’s a self-con­tained community,” said An­thony Young of Whit- bourne, who moved with his fam­ily to the town in 2010

He said Whit­bourne is strate­gi­cally lo­cated on the Trans-Canada High­way be­tween St. John’s and Whit­bourne, and is a short dis­tance from ma­jor projects such as the nickel pro­cess­ing plant at Long Har­bour, the oil re­fin­ery in Come by Chance, and the off­shore fab­ri­ca­tion fa­cil­ity in Bull Arm.

Young said the ra­tio­nale for clos­ing the Whit­bourne school was not “ra­tio­nale or clear.”

“It’s not a strug­gling town. It’s grow­ing,” said Young.

De­vel­oper Hu­bert Hussey said clos­ing the school would cre­ate a “sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cle” to his vi­sion for growth in Whit­bourne, which in­cludes an RV park and dozens of new res­i­den­tial build­ing lots. Un­ac­cept­able buss­ing Epiphany has an en­rol­ment of 43 students, and serves a catch­ment area that in­cludes the com­bined com­mu­ni­ties and Heart’s De­lightIs­ling­ton, and Heart’s De­sire.

Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary has 78 students en­rolled this year, and draws on students from Whit­bourne and nearby Mark­land.

If the board en­dorses the pro­posal to close the two schools, students cur­rently at­tend­ing Epiphany will be trans­ferred to Acre­man El­e­men­tary in Green’s Har­bour be­gin­ning in Septem­ber 2013, a dis­tance of 17 kilo­me­tres.

Students at­tend­ing Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary will go to Wood­land El­e­men­tary in Dildo, a dis­tance of 19 kilo­me­tres.

But sev­eral speak­ers pointed out that some students on the ex­treme bound­aries of the catch­ment area will be rid­ing the bus for long stretches.

Sherry Bar­rett, who chairs the lo­cal ser­vice dis­trict in Mark­land, said it would take up to 70 min­utes to make the trip to Dildo each day.

She called this “un­ac­cept­able” and said it would cause un­nec­es­sary hard­ship on young students and their fam­i­lies.

More than a few speak­ers sug­gested that the board have a sec­ond look at the catch­ment area in or­der to make the two schools vi­able.

The school coun­cil at Epiphany took things one step fur­ther, and pre­sented its own pro­posal to the school board, sug­gest­ing that Acre­man El­e­men­tary be closed, and that three schools re­main in the area.

This sce­nario would see Epiphany re­main open, and ac­com­mo­date students from White­way and Cavendish to Heart’s De­sire, while Wood­land would ac­com­mo­date students from South Dildo to Green’s Har­bour. As for Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary, its catch­ment area would also ex­pand to in­clude students from Mark­land to Blake­town and Old Shop.

“This is what we feel should hap­pen for the best of the students’ ed­u­ca­tion, health and safety,” said Epiphany school coun­cil mem­ber Chris Snel­grove.

Mas­sive chal­lenge

Mean­while, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Acre­man and Wood­land of­fered as­sur­ances that they would make the tran­si­tion as smooth as pos­si­ble, and would wel­come the new students “with open arms.”

The chair­man of the school board, Mil­ton Peach of Car­bon­ear, praised the speak­ers for the “man­ner of their pre­sen­ta­tions,” and said they dis­played a very strong pas­sion and com­mit­ment to their com­mu­ni­ties and schools.

But he also called upon those in at­ten­dance to “ap­pre­ci­ate the chal­lenge” the board faces as it at­tempts to man­age one of the largest school boards in Eastern Canada.

“It’s a mas­sive chal­lenge for us,” he stated.

Mean­while, the board will ta­ble no­tices of mo­tion for any po­ten­tial school clo­sures at a spe­cial pub­lic board meet­ing on Nov. 7 in Shoal Har­bour. This will be fol­lowed by more pub­lic hear­ings.

Those no­tices of mo­tion will be voted on dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing in Spa­niard’s Bay on Dec. 13.

ed­i­tor@cb­n­com­pass.ca

Sheila Gushue is a coun­cil­lor with the Town of Whit­bourne.

Pho­tos by Terry Roberts/the Com­pass

Kenny Chislett is a Grade 6 stu­dent at Epiphany El­e­men­tary in Heart’s De­lightIs­ling­ton.

Heart’s De­light-Is­ling­ton Mayor Den­zil Shep­pard.

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