Education minister visits local schools scheduled to close

Government will not commit to moratorium on rural school closures

By Barb McKay

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter was met by dozens of young protesters when she made a stop at Paisley Central School last Wednesday.

Hunter stopped in Paisley and Markdale on a tour of rural schools in the province. Both the Paisley elementary school and Beaverton Community School in Markdale are part of the Bluewater District School Board’s (BWDSB) latest accommodation review process.

Students from Chesley District Community School were waiting outside the Paisley school, chanting “Save our school! Moratorium now!”, when Hunter exited the building. Beginning in September, students in grades 9 through 12 will attend Walkerton District Community School, Saugeen District Secondary School, Owen Sound District Secondary School and John Diefenbaker Senior School. Chesley will continue to accommodate students in junior kindergarten through to Grade 8.

A growing number of rural schools have become subject to accommodation reviews in recent years due to declining enrolment. The province funds schools according to the number of students enrolled. But for Paisley Central School, in particular, community members and politicians are convinced enrolment projections are wrong. With Bruce Power ramping up for its major component replacement project, scheduled to begin in 2020, there is an expectation that thousands of new employees and contractors associated with the project will soon begin to move into the region with their families in tow.

In an effort to save Paisley’s only school, the Municipality of Arran-Elderslie stepped up with a proposition to rent the building after hours at a cost of $111 per square foot for a five-year period to cover the school’s operating deficit. During its regular meeting last Tuesday, the BWDSB agreed to accept the partnership offer. The school is slated to close June 30, 2019, if sufficient funding is not obtained for capital upkeep on the school by March 31, 2019. Kincardine trustee Jan Johnstone said she believes the school will continue to be needed as schools fill up in Kincardine.

“They feel strongly that the population is going to grow there and I want to make sure we don’t close a space we will eventually need.”

A similar arrangement has been made between the school board and Chapman’s Ice Cream to help fund the operating deficit for Beaverton.

During last week’s visit to Paisley, Hunter praised the community partnerships and encouraged the BWDSB to continue to work together with local municipalities.

“This is about coming up with creative solutions,” she said.

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker was also at the Paisley school to hear what Hunter had to say and said that solution is simply not sustainable.

“I hope they will do something with the funding formula or we will end up with the same situation with other schools next year,” he said, adding that he will continue to push Hunter to address the way the province funds rural schools. He and many others from rural communities across the province are calling for a moratorium on school closures.

Hunter said the government will not support a moratorium.

“We don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

Hunter said that each school board needs to have the opportunity to make decisions that are appropriate for their communities.

“I know school boards have to make decisions when it comes to rural schools and I know those decisions are never easy. But those decisions are made to provide better programming so students can be ready for future career paths.”

To achieve that, Hunter said, boards may need to move students to other schools or build new schools.

The education minister said the government has added $3.8 billion to the education budget specifically for rural schools. She said that equates to $12,100 per student, which is $1,200 more than urban boards receive. She said her department has begun consultations with rural communities to discuss improvements to rural education.