El­gin board may in­spire oth­ers

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - NEWS - LAURA BROADLEY

El­gin County’s back-to-the-fu­ture move to look at the idea of cre­at­ing its own school board may be a long shot, but it’s worth con­sid­er­ing, some say. Buck­ing the cre­ation of giant re­gional school boards in 1997, county politi­cians were re­cently per­suaded by an ad­vo­cate for ru­ral schools to study the pos­si­bil­ity of go­ing back­ward in time to a stand-alone county board of ed­u­ca­tion.

On­tario school boards were halved in num­ber in the late 1990s, part of a cost-cut­ting drive by the province un­der the Mike Har­ris-led Tories that also saw whole­sale con­sol­i­da­tion of hospi­tals and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing their num­bers as well.

The for­mer El­gin County board of ed­u­ca­tion was swal­lowed up in a four­board merger with Lon­don, Ox­ford and Mid­dle­sex coun­ties that cre­ated the Thames Val­ley District school board, one of the largest in On­tario. One for­mer Mid­dle­sex County mayor, who’s fought to keep ru­ral schools open, said El­gin County could set a tem­plate for other ar­eas of the province.

“I would be sur­prised if we don’t see it pop­ping up in other parts of the province,” Doug Rey­craft said of the sen­ti­ment in El­gin.

“We’ve never gone so far as propos­ing what the El­gin res­o­lu­tion does, but, frankly, I think it’s a good thing to get the province to take a look at the sit­u­a­tion,” said Rey­craft, a for­mer high school teacher and 1980s-era Lib­eral MPP.

On­tario’s $29-bil­lion ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has be­come much more cen­tral­ized in re­cent decades, not just in the forced merger of school boards a gen­er­a­tion ago but in pro­vin­cial budget con­trol over the sys­tem. Many ar­eas that once had tighter rein over their own schools have lost that clout in the large re­gional school boards where those lo­cal voices lack the same po­lit­i­cal clout and where de­ci­sions,es­pe­ciallyabout­clos­in­glowen­rol­ment schools, are driven by the province’s school-fund­ing for­mula. Across On­tario, de­spite decades of school clos­ings, hun­dreds of halfempty schools — even in large cities — re­main on their death beds, their fate frozen by the for­mer Lib­eral gov­ern­ment that slapped a mora­to­rium on clos­ings be­fore the Doug Ford-led Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives swept to power in June.

In South­west­ern On­tario alone, be­tweenadozen­ma­jorschool­boards, there are about 55,000 empty stu­dent desks — spa­ces many boards can’t af­ford to carry with­out stu­dents to fill them.

Sworn to $6 bil­lion in spend­ing cuts even be­fore they took of­fice, the PCs are now fac­ing a $15-bil­lion hole in their budget they blame on the for­mer Lib­eral gov­ern­ment — a deficit that’s left many peo­ple ex­pect­ing much big­ger spend­ing cuts, not ad­di­tional pro­vin­cial spend­ing.

An­nie Kid­der, a long­time pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cate, said it’s un­likely the province would give the go-ahead to cre­ate new school boards given the push to spend less money, not more, on ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“It is an in­ter­est­ing idea, but I think it’s hard to imag­ine in this day and age a gov­ern­ment want­ing to cre­ate more school boards right now,” said Kid­der, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non-profit ed­u­ca­tion lobby group Peo­ple for Ed­u­ca­tion.

The push to get El­gin County to ask its staff to look at the idea of a stand-alone school board came from Heather Derks, who’d headed a re­view of the fate of a school in Sparta, in the county. She vo­cally op­posed a Thames Val­ley board de­ci­sion last year to close five el­e­men­tary schools in the area, in­clud­ing the one in Sparta. “The idea is to in­ves­ti­gate a more com­pre­hen­sive (ap­proach) to ru­ral mu­nic­i­pal plan­ning and bring the pro­vi­sion of the ed­u­ca­tion re­sources back un­der the county author­ity,” Derks said. Ed­u­ca­tionMin­is­terLisaThomp­son wasn’t avail­able for com­ment, but her of­fice said in a state­ment it will work with boards to “en­sure the On­tario ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem meets the unique needs of their com­mu­ni­ties and de­liver good value for the On­tario tax­pay­ers.”

Rey­craft, who chairs a group called the Com­mu­nity Schools Al­liance, said the merg­ers of school boards into large re­gional author­i­ties in 1997 has re­mained a con­cern all along.

“The size of the district school boards is too large to per­mit proper demo­cratic gov­er­nance,” he said. Two trustees in each of El­gin, Ox­ford and Mid­dle­sex coun­ties for the Thames Val­ley board have to run fo­rof­fice­county-wide,whichR­ey­craft called an “in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge.” “It’s very dif­fi­cult for them to make them­selves known to the elec­torate. Con­se­quently, many peo­ple don’t know the can­di­dates.”

In the Thames Val­ley board, Rey­craft be­lieves most don’t know the com­mu­ni­ties they’re mak­ing de­ci­sions about.

With the Ford gov­ern­ment do­ing a lot of con­sult­ing on ed­u­ca­tion now, Rey­craft said no one should rule any­thing out, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing new boards.

A spokesper­son for the area’s MPP, Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Jeff Yurek, in an email wrote the is­sue isn’t at the stage where the province needs to get in­volved or for Yurek to com­ment.

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