CORNWALL – Deemed the most important policy document completed by this term of council, SDG Counties Council voted to adopt its final report on rural education.
Among the 10 recommendations made in the report is a call to reorganize Ontario’s four publicly-funded school systems into two based solely on linguistic lines. If implemented, the recommendation would eliminate the separate English Catholic and French Catholic school systems.
“Every other council does roads. Every other council does a lot of good things. We have done many good things, but this will be significant going forward for generations I do believe,” said SDG Counties Warden Allan Armstrong. “If this is done right, rolled out properly, and we remain committed to it this will be the single-most significant piece of policy or action that we take as a four-year council.”
The report that was adopted outlines that competition between school boards serving the same area has turned students into ‘commodities’, an action that harms school boards, especially in rural locations like SDG Counties. In addition to realigning to a two-school system model based on language similar to what Quebec did in 1997, the report recommends banning advertising campaigns to purposely poach students from one board to another. It also calls for the school funding model to be harmonized so the same student is worth the same amount of funding to a board, regardless of where that student attends.
“We are not alone in our concerns and in having a very fruitful and thorough discussion about how education is delivered in not just SDG Counties but in Ontario,” said Councillor Kirsten Gardner (South Dundas), who also chaired the education working committee. She said that other rural education groups have been looking at rural education and that recently the province has opened consultation on French Immersion programming.
She explained that looking at rural education delivery aligns with the core principles that Counties Council adopted at the start of the term.
“That no municipality gets left behind, a smarter approach to service delivery, and community sustainability, all of this comes together in this package which we all believe is incredibly important.”
The 44-page report (plus appendices) calls for a number of changes in how schools should function, programming offerings, daycare availability, transportation, Internet connectivity, transparency and public engagement.
Speaking about the recommendations in the report, Councillor Stephanie Jaworski (South Glengarry) said the recommendations made were formed out of consensus from the working group.
“I’ve been knee-deep in these issues for years now, but there is a lot I learned through this process,” she explained. “County council should be proud that this isn’t a Glengarry solution or a Dundas solution, it’s not a Stormont solution. This final version really highlights the threats to our rural schools, and by extension to our communities, that we face all across SDG.”
Councillor Steven Byvelds (South Dundas) said the recommendations to stop the competition for students was one he liked. Specifically the consolidation of the school systems “is something that needs to be considered by this province to move on.”
Wanting to see the plan be put out to other levels of government sooner, Councillor Jamie MacDonald (North Glengarry) supported presenting the Counties’ plan as soon as possible.
“Is our goal to make this an election issue?” MacDonald asked. “We need to do something to get everybody talking about it and unless we do that, we’re going to get nowhere.”
With no objections about the findings of the report or the recommendations, council in attendance voted unanimously to adopt the report as official policy. Councillor Carma Williams (North Glengarry) was absent from the meeting.
To prevent their report being shelved and to push the conversation further on this rural education plan, council supported Armstrong’s wish to hold a rural education symposium by the end of January 2022. A staff report will return to council on December 8, to be discussed before councillors begin budget deliberation. By March 2022 at the latest, Armstrong said he wanted the report to have a wider audience including presentation to Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, before the June 2, 2022 provincial election campaign begins.
“We cannot delay this,” said Armstrong.
SDG Counties council approved hiring education consultant Monika Ferenczy from Horizon Educational Consulting earlier in 2021 to develop a plan to improve rural education in SDG Counties. Council made this a priority following the previous round of school consolidation and closings by both English-language school boards that operate in SDG in 2017.