Local leaders, parents rally at Upper Canada District School Board meeting
By Conan de Vries
BROCKVILLE - A rally in support of local rural schools was held Wednesday night in front of the Brockville offices of the Upper Canada District School Board, where about 40 concerned parents, residents and municipal officials gathered to voice their displeasure over plans to shutter 29 schools in this region.
One of the first people to show up at the rally was the mayor of Edwardsburgh-Cardinal, Pat Sayeau, who hoped to get an audience with some of the trustees as they entered the board office in advance of a regular board meeting later that evening. Most of the trustees, however, were already inside by that time. But not all.
Sayeau had a brief and friendly exchange with Trustee Wendy MacPherson, one of three trustees who, earlier this fall, voted against approving the Building for the Future-Pupil Accommodation Review, the staff report that recommended the school closures and touched off a wave of backlash from affected communities. The mayor then had a brief, and less cordial, exchange with Trustee Bill MacPherson.
MacPherson suggested there were facts of which Sayeau wasn't aware or taking into account and that the board has no choice but to find millions of dollars in cost savings. Sayeau, on the other hand, tried to impress upon the trustee the value of the local schools to their community.
"I do not want to debate with you in front of the board office," said MacPherson, as he walked past Sayeau and the gathering protesters.
"The trustees are certainly doing a good job of avoiding it [a debate]," said Sayeau as MacPherson entered the board office.
The Township of Edwardsburgh-Cardinal was well-represented at the rally, with groups from two targeted schools - Benson Public School in Cardinal and South Edwardsburg Public School in Johnstown - showing up with signs and something to say to any trustee that would listen.
"We need the trustees to see that they need to ask the province to look at this a lot more closely than they have," said Donna Gladstone, chair of the Benson Public School parent council. "They haven't done their homework. There's much more to the schools than just the number of students in them."
Members of the South Edwardsburgh Recreation Association were also there in numbers, among them the organization's long-time chair and retired school principal Lorne Bender.
"It's always been our mission to support the school in any way that we can," he said of the backing SERA is giving to not only Johnstown's South Edwardsburgh Public School but also rural schools throughout the region.
"The school is a vital part of the community."
It was back in September that the UCDSB released the Pupil Accommodation Review, which the Board of Trustees later approved. A subsequent motion to rescind that approval, put forward by Trustee John McAllister and supported by only Wendy MacPherson and local trustee Lisa Swan, was defeated. The board then embarked on a series of public consultations, organized by local Accommodation Review Committees, which will continue into January and which are to inform the final recommendations staff will make to the board and the board's final decision on which schools will close and which will not. The report will be submitted on February 15, and the board will have to make a decision by March 23. If no changes are made to the recommendations issued in September, then 16 schools would close at the end of this year, with another 13 on the chopping block in subsequent years.
"I don't want anyone to think the journey we're on right now is easy for us," said UCDSB chair Jeff McMillan. "The trustees and staff are listening. We are very much aware of the impact our discussions are having."
After rallying outside for an hour or so, the group of protesters went into the board office and sat down in the gallery to take in the board meeting, the first part of which saw the re-election of McMillan as board chair and Caroll Carkner and David McDonald as first and second vice-chairs respectively. Then the Director of Education gave a brief outline of his annual report and turned the microphone over to McMillan, who directly addressed the packed gallery.
"It's not often we have the back of the room filled," he said.
The chair went on to assure the concerned citizens that the board is not blind to their concerns and that no determination had yet been made as to which of the staff's recommendations would and would not be accepted.
"No decision has been made yet" said McMillan. "No decision will be made until March 23."
He also pointed out that the school board is in the unenviable position of having to make some difficult decisions.
"The discussions we're in right now are necessary. It's something we have to do. It's part of being accountable."
Such sentiments did nothing to assuage the concerns of those assembled in the back of the room. A few civil discussions between trustees and school boosters were had in the hallway after the meeting, but both sides remained at loggerheads. McMillan did come out and have a brief chat with Gladstone and fellow Benson representatives, and though neither side agreed with the other, the gesture was appreciated.
"I'll give him credit for standing out here and talking to us," said Gladstone.
Most at the rally, though, felt the board has woefully misjudged the need to close many of the schools and has been wilfully oblivious to sound arguments for keeping many of them open. Parents and supporters also believe the board, and the Ministry of Education, have contributed considerably to the very problems that have now led to the proposed closures.
"The board needs to stop burdening the school with the threat of closure, because it doesn't help to build the trust that we need to address enrolment," said Elizabeth Knapp, a member of the parent council at South Edwardsburg Public School in Johnstown.
Edwarsburgh-Cardinal councilor Michael Barrett, who raced from his place of employment in Kanata to catch the end of the board meeting and show his support for the rally, made it very clear he thinks the board, in concert with the Ministry of Education, is now lying in the bed they themselves made.
He drew an analogy between what the board has done with rural schools, particularly by removing grades seven and eight to area high schools, to a hypothetical situation in which a township decides not to maintain a road for years and years and then, based on the fact that fewer people use the decrepit road, decides to close it.
"People would not accept that from their municipal government," he said, adding that these proposed school closures were just the thin edge of the wedge.
"We have to draw the line somewhere."