SDG – Work to prepare a rural education plan from SDG Counties to the province is taking place, but it became apparent at the November 16th monthly Counties Council meeting that not all municipalities are working together.
Supporting rural education in the Counties was set as one of the main pillars of council’s strategic plan, a direct response to the 2016-17 school closure crisis that was set off by the Upper Canada District School Board when it looked at closing up to 29 schools in that board.
Councillor Kirsten Gardner (South Dundas) asked about the updated plan for rural schools, which was listed in a work progress report by CAO Tim Simpson in this month’s agenda.
“We’ve made it a priority to fight and champion our rural schools,” Gardner told council saying that rural education was identified as a priority and that residents were looking to SDG to provide leadership.
“I’d like to see more of a formal work on [the plan],” she said. “We’ve made it a priority but it’s barely been mentioned.”
She added that she wanted some reassurances that all areas of SDG are included in the plan.
Councillor Jamie MacDonald (North Glengarry) said he reached out to Gardner about coming up with a plan saying that North Glengarry has been coming up with “policies and procedures” that would “implement how the province would look at the plan we are giving to them.”
“As I explained, we’re looking for you guys to give us a road map, that road map is not written in stone. It’s what we’re going to present to the education minister,” MacDonald said going on to add that the plan would have to remain low key.
“We don’t want to alarm the public on what schools we’re looking at,” he said. “The priority of this is educating in your own community.”
MacDonald said that once North Glengarry was finished with creating its “policies and procedures”, it would be provided to the committee who met with MPP Jim McDonell to make changes as needed.
“We’re close on what we need, I am just waiting on the Dundases,” he said adding that North Stormont offered few changes and South Stormont had provided input.
“Anything you suggest, we’re not holding you to that,” MacDonald said. “The province will make those decisions anyways.”
He said that Minister of Education Stephen Lecce did not want to see the Counties attack the public or Catholic education systems.
“If we don’t do anything and the super school gets built in Cornwall, rural education will disappear,” he said.
The UCDSB received approval in 2018 to build a new amalgamated secondary school consolidating Cornwall Collegiate and St. Lawrence Secondary into one new school.
So far that project remains in the planning stages as the board looks for a central location for the $43 million project.
“I appreciate the work that has been done in North Glengarry,” Gardner said adding that they needed that information so they “didn’t waste time reinventing the wheel.”
Gardner said that she and Councillor Tony Fraser (North Dundas) have talked but nothing formal because of the lack of information about what has already been discussed by North Glengarry.
“I think there has been some great work done and I am not here to dispute that,” she said. “I am, however, someone who has sat here for two years and I think there needs to be more transparency with the working groups, so we can get the best possible plan in SDG to put forward.”
MacDonald retorted that “each plan has to come from each individual community. I know there has been discussion between North Dundas and South Dundas about one high school in the middle, something to that nature, and I said ‘Bring that forth.’”
He said that SDG needs to move now.
SDG wants to have ready its plan for rural education within the next couple of weeks, but there’s a major problem with that time-line.
Only the Glengarry council members have seen the plan. Discussions at Counties Council Monday give the impression that they don’t want anyone else to see their plan.
“Once we get what our strategic plan is to move forward, we make those policies and procedures for the provincial government to make those decisions but we’re not going to hold that back,” MacDonald said. “We’re going to share that with everyone.”
He said the plan was for council to look at and decide if “that is the route you want to go.”
MacDonald said that the time-lines and next steps were contingent on receiving information from South Dundas and North Dundas but imagined that they would have a framework ready to present in the “next two-to-three weeks”.
“The request may be simply as ‘this is new to me, it’s not to you’,” said Councillor Tony Fraser (North Dundas).
“This is a long-standing project with you (MacDonald) that you’re working towards and are passionate about.”
Fraser added that the Dundas part of SDG is also passionate about its schools.
“I was looking for guidance and understanding of where things have evolved to, as Councillor Gardner said, so we don’t reinvent the wheel.”
Fraser said if there were good ideas or thoughts that could be shared early to help guide North Dundas and South Dundas along in their consultation, that is what they are looking for.
“It’s not a combative thing, it’s not a contest,” he said.
“It’s asking for the benefit of someone’s experience to others in order to get on in our path to meet the time-lines you’re referring to.”
“We’re not asking to copy anyone’s homework.” Gardner added. “What we’re asking is clearly, what the conversation has been with the Minister of Education? What’s been presented? What has he turned down? It would be absolutely ridiculous, and a waste of our time for [SDG] to come up with a plan that [Lecce] already said no to when we are unaware of what he’s had put in front of him.”
MacDonald said that a delegation at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario presented the “Glengarry Solution” but he was unclear when that solution was presented.
“[Lecce] agreed 100 per cent that this was the route for rural education at the time,” he said adding that the delegation had met with several ministers. “We talked about the competing for students and the amount of money that’s wasted doing that.”
MacDonald said he would see about having the notes from those meetings shared with the Dundas members of council.
“I agree we have challenges with schools in SDG, but its more than just the Glengarries, more than just Dundas, more than just Stormont, it’s further afield,” said Councillor Steven Byvelds (South Dundas). “If we have a solution that works in one area, it may or may not work in another. However, we all need to come up with a plan that makes sense for SDG. It may evolve from the Glengarry Solution, but all of the county needs to be behind it. Or you’re on your own, and being on your own, it’s just not going to work as well.”
Byvelds asked how SDG can come up with a plan that can save all rural schools that makes sense.
“There’s strength in numbers and we have to consider that,” he said. “We need to work together to get to where we need to get to.”
MacDonald responded that they are working on what has been asked for from McDonell’s office “through the minister”.
“Come up with the solution for SDG,” he said. “They can’t implement it everywhere, it’ll never happen. They want us to be the pilot project for this.”
After the meeting, Gardner told The Leader in an interview that she was discouraged with the lack of information from the Glengarry contingent.
“We’ve had formal discussions in South Dundas, and an open house with residents of what they want from their schools,” she said. “All we were looking for was the information that had been done so far as a good base.”
She questioned why, when education is a very important part of the county’s plan, the council is not hiring a professional consultant to prepare a plan for the province.
“I am not one to say we need a consultant for everything, but why wouldn’t we do this for something as important as education,” Gardner said, citing examples of consultant work done for the SDG Tourism plan and the local doctor recruitment project between South Dundas and South Stormont.
“Education isn’t a nice to have, it’s a necessity,” she said. “We need to have the same opportunities and access as in the cities, and we need to do this plan right.”