Accommodation Review Committee community representative Tom Roes tells Casey Lessard that Zurich Public School should stay open. And that Hensall and Usborne should, too. Will the school board listen?
Recognizing declining enrolment in area schools, Avon-Maitland District School Board is currently reviewing the need to close schools, including Usborne Public School near Exeter, and Zurich and Hensall Public Schools. To make such a decision, the board is required to collect public input through an Accommodation Review Committee, or ARC. Tom Roes, who home-schools his children, is the community representative for Zurich Public School, which is being considered for closure. The committee also consists of the parents’ council chair, and a representative of Bluewater and South Huron municipal councils. A meeting scheduled for December 10 would have been the second in the ARC process, but it is now scheduled for January 7 at Usborne Public School. A further meeting is January 14 at Stephen Central Public School.
As told to Casey Lessard
At the beginning of the process, the board staff presents their preferred option. Staff don’t decide; trustees do. The board’s preferred option has three parts: take all of the Grade 7 and 8s and put them in the high school; part two is to close Usborne; and part three is to close either Zurich or Hensall. Ultimately, they want to close two schools. It would be a devastating blow to lose either school. Zurich is full of young families, and to lose a school would be like ripping the heart out of the community. The students at Zurich feel very safe at their school, they have excellent relationships with their teachers, and the teachers have a good relationship with the parents. Zurich has some of the EQAO results in the entire board. Zurich is at capacity. Zurich has among the best teacher retention rates of any school in the board. I think the main rationale behind closing Zurich is that it is one of the smallest capacity schools in the board. We have a lot of splits and some triple-splits. But they haven’t proven that splits are bad for students. I think Hensall should stay open as well. It has special education classes, and a move to Exeter would be hugely problematic for those kids. They just moved from McCurdy a few years ago and they’ve just recovered from that. One idea that has been thrown out by the Hensall people is the idea of closing Exeter Public School and renovating or adding to the high school to have an elementary school attached to the high school. That would open up green space for those kids, they’d be going to school in their own town, it would solve vacancy rates, and solve the empty space issue at the high school. At this point, I don’t support any schools or sending Grades 7 and 8 to high school. The board hasn’t taken into account the effects of such a decision. The board hasn’t explored other options other than closing schools. They haven’t considered sharing space with other boards. Similar to what they did in Stratford between the public and Catholic high schools; they share facilities.
It bothers me that, ultimately, we have no power in this decision. The board has the decision making power over the schools. We can only make suggestions. The Community School Alliance has been fighting with the ministry for a few years now trying to get them to call for a moratorium on closing schools where the closure is in dispute (such as is the case here). The minister refuses to do that. According to the policy that rules the ARCs, the highest priority is supposed to be the value of the school to the students. If you look at what they’re doing, the highest value is clearly the bottom line. Avon Maitland is running a balanced budget, so that shouldn’t be a factor. There’s a lot of skepticism that the board has already made their decision and this is a rubber stamp process they have to go through. There’s some evidence to support this. The ARC they did last year, they did five meetings to review one school, and they’re asking us to do the same type of review for five schools in the same number of meetings. Some other boards, including Simcoe and Peel, did ARCs reviewing four to six schools and had up to 26 meetings.
What do you think? To have your say, Roes recommends you attend one of the meetings, write your MPP or school trustee, or tell the trustee what you think by talking with your votes.