What’s behind the closing of our small schools?

By MPP Toby Barrett

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling the province for annual Finance Committee Pre-Budget Consultations.

Last week in London, testimony from Susan MacKenzie hit home. Susan belongs to the Alliance Against School Closures and is from the Township of Dawn-Euphemia – an area in the throes of the Ministry of Education’s directive to close almost 600 schools in Ontario. The majority of these schools are small and located in rural Ontario.

School closures and consolidations are supported by the Ministry’s Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline that has been revised to bypass any consideration of the value of a school to its community, its economy and local government.

Parents have been rallying in pockets across the province as our small schools have not escaped this latest attack. Locally, the Grand Erie District School Board recently examined schools in both Norfolk and Haldimand. As a result, West Lynn Public School in Norfolk will be closing and Elgin Ave will be renovated to increase classroom space.

In the meantime, the Brant Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board has three schools under the microscope. Although these schools are under review, it does not mean each one may close. For example, of the three schools the Catholic board has under review — Our Lady of LaSalette, Delhi’s St. Frances and Waterford’s St. Bernard’s — the only school in danger of closing is LaSalette. The other two are listed to accommodate misplaced OLOL students.

Schools under capacity are on-going occurrences in rural and small town Ontario. Instead of helping to keep students in their own community, government and school boards seem to have lost touch with communities. But the bigger is better approach — shifting funding from small schools to larger and combined schools — has proven wrong time and again.

Neither the ministry nor the boards provide evidence that larger combined schools enhance student achievement. There is research showing small schools provide excellent learning environments, although there are more course options available at larger schools. Then again many of us have done alright coming from small elementary schools where the focus was on reading, writing and arithmetic.

In 2003, Dr. James Downey prepared the Rural Education Strategy for the Ministry of Education to ensure quality education and student success in remote, rural and northern schools. It recommended a wide, flexible range of options for allocating resources and making decisions about small and distant schools. What happened? Instead of the Ministry giving a hand up to small schools and recognizing the benefit to their community, we see them being phased out.

Susan Mackenzie also attacked the ministry’s “School Board Bait and Switch” of dumping excessive sums of money into capital incentive and priority programs — $12 billion over 10 years has been committed to additions, renovations, consolidations and new infrastructure. But, in 2015, Ontario’s Auditor General recommended the ministry allocate two-thirds of its capital priority funding to renewals and maintaining existing schools, not to new infrastructure.

Between now and next year’s election, Susan reports the ministry will spend almost $1.5 billion to save $236 million. In light of this, I call on the ministry to place a moratorium on school closures until the funding formula is fixed and the pupil accommodation review guidelines are fairly rewritten. Rural Ontario has been through enough.