The lessons of the school closure scare
Although school closures were a burning issue a year and a half ago, the subject resurfaced repeatedly at a trustee candidates debate at Glengarry District High School in Alexandria last Wednesday.
John Danaher and Marshall Wilson, who are hoping to represent Stormont and Glengarry counties on the Upper Canada District School Board, brought the topic up several times over the course of the evening.
Mr. Danaher, a veteran educator who served as principal of GDHS and Char-Lan District High School in Williamstown, said there was a lack of communication in 2017 when the board closed a number of schools, including S.J. McLeod Public School in Bainsville.
“We need open communication between the board and parents,” said Mr. Danaher, who had retired when the school closures took place. “I can assure you that didn’t happen during those talks. Decisions about schools should come from the community, not from higher up.”
Mr. Wilson, who worked hard on the Save Our Schools campaign when he was a GDHS student, commented, “Trustees didn’t know some of the information they should have known,” adding that the board members should have been more transparent with their constituents.
Both candidates promised that if elected, they wouldn’t be bound by any gag orders, insisting that they would be accountable to families first and foremost.
While the two saw eye-to-eye on the matter of transparency, they highlighted different issues.
Mr. Wilson, a former student trustee, started his speech by making a lighthearted reference to his youth. “I am a young man but I assure you I will grow out of it.” He said he would fight to restore Glengarry’s boundaries to the way they were in 2008. He also pledged support for a rebuilding of Williamstown Public School. “It’s unacceptable that we’re sending kids to portables that have mould be- cause they’re so old.”
He also suggested a board-wide Canadian Dairy Only policy.
Mr. Danaher said, “I will fight for rural schools,” adding that seven of his nine grand-
children are in UCDSB schools and that he doesn’t want them to be bused from Bainsville to Cornwall so they can get an education.
The candidates were asked what they would do to increase the number of courses at local schools. Someone mentioned that calculus is only available at GDHS every two years.
Mr. Wilson noted that this is a serious problem, especially for rural schools. He believes that economic development is important so that communities can grow. “The larger the community, the more students you have so the more courses you can offer,” he said.
He mentioned online courses as a potential solution, though he noted that they were not sustainable in their current form. “There’s a lot of wiggle room,” he said, adding that the Renfrew District School Board has been experimenting with virtual classrooms.
Mr. Danaher blamed the problem on declining enrolment, pointing out that there are 40 per cent fewer students now than there were a generation ago. “If we can’t provide courses students need, they won’t stay here,” he said, adding that the government needs to invest more in rural schools. At a more local level, he said Glengarry’s two high schools could share resources to ensure students get the courses they need.
Regarding online courses, he said the board is looking at them but the success rate is very low and that students don’t enjoy them.
The thought of sharing resources piqued the curiosity of the audience. Glen Robertson resident Pauline Hambleton asked if either trustee would consider merging GDHS and Char-Lan so they could offer more programs.
Mr. Wilson said that was a real option but not the first option. “There are barriers but if it comes down to losing our students to another area, then yes, I’d be open to it if it was available and necessary,” he said.
Mr. Danaher was not as optimistic as his younger opponent. He pointed out that creating one secondary school in Glengarry would pose some transportation problems for students who lived in areas such as Fassifern and Glen Walter. Again, he said that the potential isn’t in merging schools, it’s in the sharing of resources. As an example, he mentioned an art teacher who taught one semester in GD and the other at Char-Lan.
Later, Williamstown resident Todd Rozon took the idea even further. He pointed out that Eastern Ontario has four competing school boards and wondered if an amalgamation might be forthcoming. Mr. Danaher said that decision wouldn’t come at the local level, but he would welcome it if he did. “We have buses going down the road that are half empty,” he says. “We are struggling because an area like Glengarry is divided into four.”
Mr. Wilson said he is a strong proponent of board mergers.
“I don’t see it happening in the near future but I see some pressure and I think it will happen soon,” he said.
The trustees were asked their views on courtesy busing, especially in the wake of several families being denied busing to GDHS.
Mr. Wilson said he’s in favour of courtesy busing and that there needs to be additional communication between government and Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario (STEO), the organization that oversees busing for anglophone students. Mr. Danaher largely agreed, saying that STEO has to be more open to serving split families or students who have after-school jobs.
North Glengarry Deputy-Mayor candidate Robert Proulx asked the candidates if they would try to increase the number of international students in the area. Mr. Danaher said that international students bring a valuable culture to the school experience.
“They bring international perspectives,” he said. “They come here because they want to get an Ontario diploma and to learn English.” Mr. Wilson said he is a hundred per cent in favour of bringing in more students.
North Glengarry’s incoming mayor, Jamie MacDonald, asked if the trustees would be more open with municipal councils. “During the school discussions, councils felt like second-class citizens,” he said. “We weren’t really kept in the loop. What will you do to make this partnership work? Municipal councils are committed to keeping schools in the area too.” Mr. Danaher agreed that there wasn’t a lot of interaction with councils. “We should be connecting on an ongoing basis,” he said. Mr. Wilson concurred, saying that the board needs to put more value on community input. He said that educational committees might help rectify that.