‘ Rural schools are no longer viable’
“The education system as we know it today, will not be sustainable in the future.”
That stark warning was delivered by Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry representatives to Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson recently.
The province and local school boards need to do more to support students and schools in rural areas, SDG Warden and North Glengarry Mayor Jamie MacDonald told the minister during a meeting at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference.
“The existing policies do not put the needs of students first. The previous government's ‘bigger is better’ focus has had a serious negative impact on our students. The elephant in the room remains the fact that there are too many publicly funded school boards in Ontario. While that is not the topic of conversation for today, we implore the government to begin a process to tackle this issue,” said Mr. MacDonald.
The delegates urged the minister to take the steps needed to develop a rural education strategy which aims to improve both the Program and Accommodation Review (PAR) and the Community Planning and Partnership Guidelines (CPPG).
“This review needs to recognize the unique challenges faced by local schools and it needs to promote and enhance these schools,” argued the SDG delegation.
The group further recommended that the Pupil Accommodation Review (PAR) account for the community and economic impact related to any proposed school closures, and asked that Minister Thompson maintain the current moratorium on school closures until new processes can be developed and implemented.
Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry is currently served by four school boards. “All four boards are competing for the same student and public funds are being used to advertise for that same student to attend half-empty schools, which are struggling to remain open,” the delegation’s statement reads.
“The removal in 2015 of the necessity to consider the community and economic impacts of school closures was misguided. We recommend that guidelines and regulations be put in place describing the exact process that school boards must follow when determining the impact school closures will have on rural communities,” said Mr. MacDonald.
He added that these guidelines should not be viewed as a requirement to prevent school closures, but rather as a strategy to ensure that community partners are considered in decisions that will have broader, resounding impacts.
Better planning and coordination among and between the various school boards are also essential, according to the delegates.
“The first step shouldn't be to close schools. Prior to closing a school, each school board should be required to clearly demonstrate that they have considered all options for housing students, including sharing existing, underutilized schools,” the delegation contended.
“In our area, there have been historical examples where school boards have shared facilities. Based on the number of shared facilities across the province, this is clearly not an option which school boards are pursuing,” commented Mr. MacDonald.
The delegation maintained that no capital funding should be provided for new schools until is has been demonstrated that there are no viable options to share existing school facilities.
Pre-consultation with stakeholders should be mandatory during the initial staff report and trustees need a stronger role in the process, the group stated.
”The meeting with Minister Thompson was an encouraging step in this process. The Minister has agreed to work with the County and Township to study the challenges in our region. It's an issue that has resounding community effects. The Township of North Glengarry and the County of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry remain committed to ensuring that education remains a priority,” the statement reads.
Mr. MacDonald was accompanied by North Glengarry's Deputy Mayor Carma Williams, North Glengarry Councillors Brenda Noble, Jeff Manley and Johanne Wensink, North Glengarry CAO Sarah Huskinson, United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry CAO Tim Simpson, South Glengarry Councillor Stephanie Jaworski and MPP Jim McDonell.