“Anybody can lock up a school – get innovative”

By MPP Toby Barrett

“For rural kids, few things are more important than being able to go to school in your own community, with your own friends.Rural schools help keep communities strong, which is why we’re not only committed to keeping them open – but strengthening them.” – Premier Dalton McGuinty

If there’s anything that galvanizes a community, it’s the threatened closure of the local high school.

Last week’s raucous and standing-room-only crowd in the Port Dover gym is a good example. Issues of demographics, property values, taxes, Main Street business, course selection, school spirit, busing and catchment areas converge.

Ten years ago Port Dover dodged the bullet, by agreeing to incorporate Grades 7 and 8 in to the high school curriculum. This was to be the example – the prototype – for other high schools to follow. That didn’t happen, and we now have- yet again- Grand Erie schools competing for too few 9 to 12 students. This should not be a zero sum game among the five high-schools.

Other bones of contention at last week’s Accommodation Review Committee hearings, were the funding of courtesy busing and the gerrymandering of school catchment areas that benefit the two large high schools in Simcoe. But remember – buses run both ways.

Any hint of favouring one high school over another, whether in Norfolk or Haldimand County has no place in a publicly-funded education system overseen by democratically-elected school board trustees.

As in the past, people are asking their trustees to think outside the box, judiciously allocate scarce resources – even in a provincial budget of $23.2 billion a year – and reject quick-fix high school closures. As was stated in Dover, “Anybody can lock up a school – get innovative.” Dover and Delhi have now faced the spectre of closure twice; Burford and Norwich have been shuttered.

Provincially, Dalton McGuinty has been on record calling for, “a moratorium on rural school closings”, and stated, “The priority for rural communities and families is strong rural schools close to home.” When he first became Premier, every school board received a ministerial letter requesting a moratorium. However it was never backed up by legislation. As well, any thought of additional rural school funding was put on the backburner. To date the Ontario government has yet to conduct a complete review of the funding formula.

In the October election, I ran on a platform of ensuring the provincial funding formula meets the needs of single school communities. We committed to increase spending on K to 12 education by $2 billion, and to find savings by rooting out waste and unnecessary bureaucracy.

And locally, again I suggest levelling the playing field by moving 7 and 8’s into declining enrolment high schools; restore original catchment boundaries, and restrict the subsidization of courtesy busing.

At the end of the day, the final decision on a high-school closure is made by board trustees – trustees whose own pupil accommodation review policy states, “In recognition of the important role schools play in strengthening rural and urban communities and the importance of healthy communities for student success, it is also expected that decisions consider the value of the school to the community…”

It is incumbent on those concerned to contact board representatives – submit a brief, testify – have your say.

Our local schools are worth fighting for!