School closures protest spreads

Island trustees attempt to pause the process pondering government review

SUDBURY—There are 12 schools in the Rainbow District School Board on the chopping block following a board-wide accommodation review that will submit its final report on Thursday, November 24. A last ditch motion made by Manitoulin Island Trustee Larry Killens sought a moratorium on school closures pending a provincial government decision on whether it would restore funding to rural schools.

Mr. Killens’ motion was supported by First Nation Trustee Grace Fox and Trustee Gord Santala, but went down to defeat seven to three.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha spoke at a Queen’s Park protest on Monday, September 21, where he invoked Mr. Killens’ motion and concerns.

“This has been an ongoing issue for a long time,” said Mr. Mantha. “The government has been giving out a false message, doing a bait and switch, saying that they want to create community hubs in the schools.” But the closures in small rural communities gives lie to that assertion.

Aside from the consideration that where you live should not condemn you to a second rate education, Mr. Mantha points out that schools are critical to economic development in communities. “It’s one of the first things that a company looks at when they are considering investing in a community,” he said. “They look at whether you have schools, arenas, rec centres and parks.”

Instead, he notes “we are putting kids on buses for four hours a day, two hours in the morning, two hours at night, it just isn’t right,” he said.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas was also at the protest. “Today, residents from Sudbury and Nickel Belt are at Queen’s Park. They made the long journey down here to protest the consolidation and closure of 12 schools in our area,” said Ms. Gélinas.

“I have seen this movie before and it does not end well,” Ms. Gélinas continued. “It ends with communities being gutted and unable to attract young families with children. It ends with grocery stores and businesses closing. The possible closure of Levack, Dowling, Chelmsford and Lively schools are the direct result of your funding formula, which works in favour of big urban schools at the expense of smaller rural and Northern schools.”

Ms. Gélinas challenged the Wynne government as to why the Minister of Education has not responded to her requests, or those of local councillors, about the school closures and their effect on children.

“I have gone to see the minister at least four times about this review. She promised follow-up, but none came,” said Ms. Gélinas. “I hand-delivered her a letter from three municipal councillors wanting to meet with her, but no response. I handed her a financial analysis showing great discrepancies, and still no follow-up.”

“Meanwhile, the kids in my riding in Geneva Lake will have to be on a bus for a three-and-a-half hours minimum if Levack and Dowling schools close,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine how four and five-year-olds can learn after they spend so long on the bus. It’s hard to leave and come home from school in the dark. It’s hard when you can’t participate in school sports and activities, because you spend so much time on a bus.”

In speaking on the issue, board chair Doreen Dewar 

said trustees knew what they were getting themselves into by starting the accommodation review. “Did we not know what we were saying when we made those motions?” Ms. Dewar asked her fellow trustees. “Did we not understand that this was going to be a difficult process?”

Trustee Gord Santala, who also represents a rural area of the RDSB, said that ideas like Mr. Killens are “essential to address the larger issues of under-funded schools in the area. Unless we do something like this, and communities across the province do something like this, nothing will move forward,” Mr. Santala continued. “So I believe this is a positive motion, which will bring the conversation back to the government’s lap where it really belongs.”

Billboards challenging the closures, and the RDSB decision to build new board offices to the tune of $7.3 million, have sprung up around the city.

“(RDSB Education Director) Norm Blaseg himself is on record as saying it would only cost $3 million to put the current offices in good shape,” asserted Mr. Killens. The trustee also challenges the RDSB administration’s assessment of savings to be had through the closures. “That is all government numbers they are using,” he said. “For instance, they claim it will cost $60,000 for a new PA system, give me a break.” Mr. Killens said that even the administration admits that some of the numbers being cited in the review are inflated—an assertion the administration has not confirmed.

Mr. Killens said that while he won his battle against Island school closures and rationalization, the battle is far from over. “They wanted to move Grades 7-8 from Assiginack Public School and Central Manitoulin to Manitoulin Secondary School, I successfully managed to fight that one,” he said.

The vast distances between Island schools has so far helped to shield Manitoulin schools, but with the potential closure of schools in the Valley leading to bus commutes of an hour and 45 minutes or more, there is no room for complacency.

Mr. Killens also places the blame for the potential closures squarely in the provincial government’s court, but he also challenges the decisions of the administration made even in light of $500 million in announced cuts to education. “Despite that they plan to build a soccer bubble at Lasalle Secondary School,” he said.

The board will make its final recommendations on possible school closures November 24.