BRIDGENORTH/BROCKVILLE — Ontario education minister Mitzie Hunter announced at a press conference held at Chemong Public School June 28, a province-wide moratorium on school closures, pending a review of the accommodation review process.
“That’s why we engaged with our rural and northern communities to ensure that the thoughts and ideas of students, parents, school boards and communities are reflected,” said Hunter. “What we heard from you was compelling and meaningful.”
Hunter said what the ministry has heard from people is that communication between school boards, governments and communities needs to be more frequent.
“It needs to include more community input. With a focus on well being of rural and northern communities. We heard that all stakeholders including the province, municipal government community partners and school boards need to make efforts to work together.”
Hunter said the government’s number one priority is the best possible outcome for students,
“We will be overhauling the pupil accommodation process,” she said at the press conference, flanked by parliamentary assistants Grant Crack, Granville Anderson and Lou Rinaldi, who spearheaded a series of consultations across rural and northern Ontario including in Merrickville. “We heard a stronger process is needed.”
“Until the overhaul is complete there will be no new reviews taking place,” Hunter said.
Part of the minister’s announcement was the start of a 20-million dollar fund to support rural and northern communities. School boards will be able to access the fund to provice more access to transportation or French immersion programming in rural and northern schools.
“It will support school boards in meeting their local needs,” said Hunter. “Each community has unique needs, school boards should have the flexibility to meet those needs.”
Two schools in the region, the Grade 7-12 portion of Rothwell-Osnabruck School in Ingleside and the Kindergarten-Grade 6 Benson Public School in Cardinal, are slated to close at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The Upper Canada District School Board voted in March 2017 to close those, along with six other schools.
“The challenge is that we conducted our process by the ministry’s guidelines as they were,” Jeremy Armer — UCDSB Dundas County trustee — told The Leader. “It’s unfortunate they came out with this moratorium after we have done our review.”
When asked if the board plans to halt the approved closures, including Rothwell-Osnabruck and Benson, Armer said that the closures already approved would continue.
“We’re well in the process of making the accommodation for those closures — the problem is the fact we have been asking for this moratorium since last fall, and the minister just did it now,” he said.
Armer added the board will be releasing a statement addressing the minister’s release.
The minister’s announcement pointed to more communication and cooperation between school boards was needed.
“I would agree with her,” said Armer. “I agree we need to speak with our community partners better. Out of this process we have the joint partnership between Seaway District High School, the board, South Dundas and businesses like Ross Video.”
Armer added, “It’s great to talk about school boards working together but there is no big incentive right now to do it, other than the government saying to do it.”
Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown released a statement after Hunter’s announcment stating that “just months ago the PCs called for a moratorium on school closures until there is a review process that is fair, but the Wynne Liberals voted it down.”
“Now, a year out from an election, they have apparently changed their minds,” said Brown. “Rural and Northern Ontario have been nothing but an afterthought to this government. They only seem to acknowledge their existence when an election rolls around.”