A crowd about 400 strong filled the Seaway District High School gymnasium last week for the accommodation review public meeting to hear public presentations outlining why local schools, including Morrisburg and Iroquois Public Schools and Seaway District High School need to be spared from closure.
Nine delegations presented to the audience that was filled with school supporters, community supporters, board superintendents, area school principals and a handful of Upper Canada District School Board trustees.
The most heavy-hitting presentation came from David Ross, CEO of Ross Video.
Ross who is a graduate of Iroquois Public School and Seaway District High School, runs the company founded by his father that holds many prestigious awards for its technical achievements including a Gemini and an Emmy. Ross Video was founded in Iroquois more than 40 years ago and has continued to grow year after year and is now one of this area’s biggest employers, paying out about $15 million a year to employees in this region.
“This year we will pump more than $200 million worth of product right out of that factory,” he said pointing towards the building located adjacent to the school’s neighbouring shopping plaza.
He is considering a 40,000 square foot facility expansion as soon as next year, but worries that if the school closes there may not be enough employees in the region to justify the expansion here in this area. He also mentioned that 70 per cent of its product is exported to the United States, and that they regularly receive offers from across the border to set up shop there.
Ross called the Ontario government’s education policy warped.
“You can’t possibly agree that what you are proposing makes any sense financially or economically or is in any way good for the kids of rural communities,” said Ross to the school board officials on hand. “You shouldn’t be here making these decisions based on these crazy rules. You should be telling the government and the Ministry of Education that this whole thing is a devastating mistake for rural Ontario.”
On behalf of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry and its 65,000 residents, warden Jamie MacDonald and CAO Tim Simpson made a presentation.
MacDonald spoke about the lack of consultation between the school board officials and municipal officials prior to the school board’s releasing the report that put a target on so many rural schools.
“Unfortunately, discussions should have taken place at the front end of the process, but that did not happen,” said MacDonald. “No issue has ever resonated with residents of SDG like this one. The reason – if accepted, this will have a profound and irreversible negative impact on our rural communities and our rural way of life.”
“The real enemy in all of this is the lack of provincial support,” said Simpson.
The Counties are asking for at least a one year suspension of the process to allow school board and municipal partners to work together in earnest to develop a made in SDG solution.
“The loss of students to other boards will be real and profound,” cautioned Simpson. “That impact could be mitigated by making strategic decisions.”
“No SDG school should be sacrificed for the sake of a policy that does not fully reflect the unique circumstances of our local students,” said MacDonald.
On behalf of the Municipality of South Dundas, mayor Evonne Delegarde and councillor Marc St. Pierre presented.
“I’m a little nervous, but more upset that I have to stand here and beg to keep Seaway open,” said St. Pierre.
Delegarde listed the vast community assets and resources that the schools have access to because of their location and then said, “The idea of losing Seaway District High School is unacceptable. Rural schools do matter.”
“We will work together to achieve the best fit solution for the youth of South Dundas,” she concluded.
Tracey Stewart, a pharmacist in Iroquois, and Victoria Windle, a physiotherapist from Morrisburg, spoke separately on the impacts of school closures, but with similar health care-type backgrounds, each spoke about the negative health effects of long bus rides and less physical activity.
Stewart, who grew up in Iroquois, pointed out that it’s hard to bring new urban people to rural areas. “We need our rural students. It’s our rural students that come back to rural communities to take care of our needs,” she said, referring to taking over businesses like hers, so the business owners of today can some day retire.
Windle moved here because she had been working in this community with her kids going to school in another community. She said that the difficulties in having her kids far from her in the day time, made it difficult to pick up a sick kid from school, or volunteer or participate in school activities.
“It took a toll on our quality of life, so we decided to move here – and now this,” said Windle.
Bonnie Adair spoke about the history of schools in South Dundas, and concluded by saying, “The loss of Seaway would sound the death knell for this village.”
Alyssa Grant presented her perspective as a student, including the emotional and negative impact of the closure proposal within the walls of the building. “This is Seaway’s 50th anniversary this year, we don’t want it to be its last,” she said.
While most presentations focused on why Seaway shouldn’t close, Dwayne Collard presented an alternative.
He outlined a plan to make Morrisburg Public School a K-6 school and Iroquois, in the Seaway building a K-12 school, with French immersion offered at both. His proposal would close Iroquois Public School.
“It may sound anti-intuitive but it would leave a school in both communities with MPS at 79 per cent capacity and SDHS at 93 per cent capacity.”
The November 17th meeting was the first of two public ARC meetings scheduled for this area. The second will take place January 31, 2017 at North Dundas District High School.
The UCDSB will have its vote in March to determine which schools will close at the end of the school year.