KEMPTVILLE – Following the conclusion of the Accommodation Review Committee’s final public meeting at Seaway District High School January 31st. Dundas County trustee Jeremy Armer sat down with The Leader to discuss the ARC process, the night’s presentations and the future following the tabling of the final report on February 15th.
“When the final report is presented, according to the Ministry of Education guidelines, the trustees have final say,” Armer said. “We are able to review, amend, change or recommend. I will make sure our community is well heard at the board table.”
Armer said that if anyone had concerns regarding the accuracy of the final report to contact him directly.
When asked whether he felt Seaway DHS should be included in the final report, Armer indicated that he felt the school should not be considered for closure.
“I’d have a hard time closing it,” said Armer. “But I want to see some sort of longer term approach to how we approach education in South Dundas.”
If Seaway is still targeted for closure in the UCDSB’s final report, Armer said he will work to keep it open.
“Yes, why wouldn’t we keep it open,” he said.
Armer pointed to Seaway’s higher than board average for attracting Grade 7 and Grade 9 students in the catchment area.
“There is clearly fabulous community support, we have a way to go to address some of the programming issues and catching more kids to the school.”
Armer’s support for Morrisburg Public was also clear.
“As long as the funding stays in place, the programming is good, and issues are addressed, I have no problem keeping the school open,” he said. “I am not going to be the lone whipping boy of the Upper Canada District School Board because there are excess space in the board.”
Armer’s support for starting Early French Immersion was not as enthusiastic, as he expressed concerns about adding the program.
“Realistically, if that is what the community wants, we’d explore those options,” Armer said.
He pointed to a few of the presentations that stood out for him during the January 31st meeting.
“It is too bad it took this process to get people to talk about what the future of education is going to look like,” Armer said.
The presentations by Michael Staebler (Preserving our Future) and Tom Manley (Meeting the needs of South Dundas and South Stormont) were two that Armer referenced.
“I am not certain that super schools in rural settings work,” said Armer. “I am not sold. Maybe a super school in the Upper Canada Board is 500 kids, not 1,000 that the province wants.”
He also mentioned the proposed high skills major in information and communications technology ideas presented by South Dundas
“I don’t think in any of my years involved in education do I remember a municipal partner coming out and saying ‘you know, we’re partners in this’,” Armer said.
For schools that may be closed, the trustee discussed his concerns with busing and special education transitions.
“Maybe as a board we need to put a policy in place that no child will have a bus ride longer than 60 minutes one way,” said Armer.
Regarding special education, Armer said he believes it will be very difficult to get all of the work done between the March 23rd final decision and the start of the next school year.
“We would have to monitor that very carefully,” said Armer. “We don’t want kids falling through the cracks. We owe it to the parents and students.”
Armer stated that after this process is over, the UCDSB is going to have to work at healing the communities they serve.
“After this process is done, we’re going to have to go about making people feel warm and fuzzy about the UCDSB again.”
Other trustee reaction
Two other trustees were in attendance at the January 31st meeting at Seaway, Ward 4 trustee John McAllister and Ward 2 trustee Bill MacPherson.
“I am absolutely proud of the South Dundas community,” McAllister told The Leader. “There is great support for public education in South Dundas.
McAllister discussed the use of SCI funds for repairs to Morrisburg Public, stating that it was a “technical issue” with the funding. On school funding McAllister stated that the funding of empty classroom spaces is only one of the criteria that they look at for determining if a school closes.
“The number of students and projected enrollment, programming, and long term viability, but funding is the biggest one,” McAllister said.
On the potential closure of Seaway DHS, McAllister was supportive of keeping the school open.
“Yes, certainly I would support Seaway, whatever way I can,” said McAllister.
“The most important part of these meetings has been it has put faces to the stories. To me that is really important,” he added.
Ward 2 Trustee MacPherson stated that all of the presentations confirmed what he already knew about schools in the UCDSB.
“I am proud that people fought for their schools. We know we have great schools,” he said. “If we didn’t, communities would not be fighting this hard to keep them.”
MacPherson was encouraged by the program ideas presented throughout the process, including the high-skills major proposal for Seaway.
“There are great ideas from these meetings,” he said.
MacPherson said that the 100 per cent funding of Seaway and MPS was not accurate.
“It’s not 100 per cent funding. There is some, but rarely does anyone get 100 per cent top up under these programs,” said MacPherson.
He added that the SCI funding use at MPS was not a lifeline that alone would save the school.
“Funding like that is not a magic bullet that keeps a school open,” MacPherson said.
MacPherson would not commit to saying if Seaway or MPS should remain open in the process, but he did say the final plan will be a compromise.
“No one is going to be happy with the final plan when we vote on it,” he said. “There will be some schools closing. Some will be immediate, some over the next three-to-five years, and some will probably be left to wither on the vine.”
MacPherson pointed out that the current process has highlighted and deepened the urban-rural divide that the UCDSB faces.
“I don’t think we need to put more kids in city schools,” he said. “But we need to renew our schools.”
The UCDSB board will vote on the final plan at a special March 23rd meeting to be held at North Grenville District High School in Kemptville.