SDHS parent council meeting sees record high attendance following news of potential closure

 Attendance records were broken last week at Seaway District High School’s first parent council meeting of the 2016/2017 school year.
Roughly 70 people attended the two-hour long Tuesday, September 27 meeting, where almost one-third of those present were concerned students. Earlier that day, students, teachers, educational assistants and parents learned their school, along with Morrisburg Public School, was among nine Upper Canada District School Board schools on the chopping block for September 2017. Also in attendance for the meeting was UCDSB trustee for Ward 7 – North and South Dundas, Jeremy Armer, along with Municipality of South Dundas mayor Evonne Delegarde and councillor Marc St. Pierre.
“This was information I was given yesterday morning,” principal Don Lewis said at the outset of the meeting, admitting that he had not been at liberty to share that information with staff at the time. “Unfortunately, it got out through social media before I even got a chance to really share it with the staff.”
The document in question was released at roughly 11 p.m. Monday, September 26, as all UCDSB meeting agendas are posted the Monday before a meeting. The document, however, Lewis reminded everyone, is a proposal.
“I’d say this is distressing news to say the least. It’s probably not the kind of list you want to be on,” he said.
He told parents the number of students in high school today is not as high as when they were in high school themselves, adding that funding is based on the number of students in a school.
“A couple of years ago now, the Ministry (of Education) revised their guidelines to school boards as to how school boards look at issues of declining enrolment and that’s one of the directives from the Ministry of Education to the school board was to start to come up with some proposals about what was going to be done within our schools to ensure we’re maximizing the use of space,” Lewis said.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lewis said Seaway had more than 550 students in Grades 9-12, but today, there are only 413 students from Grades 7-12.
Impacts for students and student success
Armer told parents that like the decision to make cuts to special education, this decision is also difficult.
“Funding models change all the time,” Armer said. “So, one of the things we have to look at as trustees is, ‘How are we going to fund our schools going forward? Is this the best decision for our kids and student success?’”
Armer shared a story of another school, where parents and students rallied to save it from closure and succeeded.
“If you rally around it and you really want to make a difference, then what we have to look at is, ‘Is it the best for our kids that we do keep Seaway open? Is it?”
Transportation was a major concern for the majority of parents in the room. It was also noted as an issue for those interested in participating in extra-curriculars, sports, after-school jobs, or gaining volunteer hours. Too much time on the bus could mean no time left to do homework and relax, let alone work a part-time job or volunteer and, it was added, not all parents, single or otherwise, have access to transportation or time to collect their children from school if they were to stay late to participate in sports or clubs.
With so many students competing for potentially limited spots, several parents said transportation would be a moot point if their child didn’t make a team.
In addition to the myriad of transportation issues related to the proposal, parents also voiced concern over the lack of adequate transitioning time for children with learning exceptionalities, as some need months, if not upwards of a year, to acclimate to change.
Community impact
“Losing our high school is not just bad for the kids,” one South Dundas business-owning mom said. “It’s bad for the community.”
Lewis said the mother’s concern was one already expressed by students throughout the day, as he went from classroom to classroom to discuss the situation with them, ensuring they had an opportunity to ask questions and say what they needed to say.
“Schools that reside in larger communities, and I know in Cornwall they’re looking at a couple of different closures as well, but for the most part the schools survive because they have the population,” St. Pierre said. “As small communities, we’re trying to grow our population, to grow our tax base, to bring more families here, and this is just an amenity that if it’s gone, we’re not going to grow. Maybe the numbers suggest for the school itself and the funding available, but everything else around it is losing out. So, socially we’re having a hard time surviving, which means it’s an economic and social downfall for our community. And, no disrespect to North Dundas, but the benefit of having a school in a community outweighs having a school where you’re busing out to North Dundas. Having a school here is more of a benefit than having one at North Dundas.”
Another parent pointed to the recent Swank subdivision proposal.
“How do you attract 200 people when you don’t have a school,” they asked.
Delegarde supported that point.
“The two biggest questions we get asked when people want to relocate into this area is schools and medical facilities,” she said. “Top two, by far. They outweigh any other questions they have and with this 200 homes, it’s a mix of families and seniors.”
Questions of fiscal responsibility
When asked about the validity behind cost-savings after putting substantial amounts of money into renovations at both Seaway and Morrisburg Public School, Armer said the board needs to look at the long-term picture. He said he was sure the senior team had looked at the numbers and wouldn’t have suggested the closures if the numbers didn’t make sense.
St. Pierre took aim at the validity of the cost-savings argument.
“I’m going to have a hard time being convinced that the cost of expanding to accommodate for these super schools is going to outweigh the costs of just keeping the existing schools here,” St. Pierre said, pointing to transportation as one example. “I just don’t see the numbers that are going to add up. I think the problem is the government funding and the way they formulate their money and how they spend their money.”
Later, St. Pierre suggested deferring the decision.
“We’re talking about funding from the government, would it not make more sense to hold off until, hopefully, a new party is elected? We all know that the first year or two new government’s roll out new funding programs. Let’s just defer this,” he said.
Armer said the board has to be fiscally responsible, while Lewis said the current situation is the current reality.
“The funding formula has changed for boards who have excess space and that’s why the decision is being made right now. That’s the government that’s funding us right now,” he said.
Lewis also noted there are two years before another election and there is no guarantee of the outcome.
“But I’m a taxpayer, do I not have the right to have the same quality of life as people who are in the city and can send their children 10 minutes away to school,” a parent asked.
Suggestions for “alternate configurations”
“If the government really wanted to save money on education, we would have one system,” said one mother. “So, it’s kind of unfair that these local community schools are shut down because of the dual school system.”
Armer suggested the current state of declining enrolment can be attributed to the baby boomers rather than transfers to the Catholic board.
“Why can’t they choose schools where it’s way easier (for them) to commute than it is here,” asked a student.
Armer said two schools were closing in Cornwall, adding: “Just so you’re aware, the government has an appetite to build new schools if we close certain schools.”
“Why,” the student said.
One parent asked if a petition would make a difference, Lewis said he had been asked by two students earlier in the day about starting a petition. A student spoke up, asking if fundraising would make a difference.
“Probably no,” Armer said. “Your voice is most important. It would have more of an impact.”
The proposal process
Many parents agreed that it was “highly disrespectful” of the school board to be holding its ARC (Accommodation Review Committee) orientation meeting at Tagwi in Avonmore, a secondary school that is not set to close, but instead gain some students from Charlan. Parents noted the location of the meeting was inconvenient in terms of time and distance from their home or work, adding that some families don’t have access to transportation in any case. One parent suggested this might be a tactic to ensure silence from the masses. Whether parents are able to attend or not, one of the fathers in the audience said it is more likely their voices would be lost in the crowd with so many schools’ parents all meeting together in one place at one time.
“Your voice matters. I will make sure your voice is heard, that the other trustees are aware of your concerns,” Armer said.

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