I came away from last week’s public meeting about the future of Madoc Township Public School feeling a mix of anxiety and pride. The anxiety was over whether our community will be successful in keeping this splendid rural school open. The pride was in the thoughtful and clear-headed way in which members of the community asked their questions and made their case for why it should be kept open.
In case you’re new to this issue, the background is all contained in my recent posts here and here and here and here and here. The one-sentence version: the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board is proposing to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and send the Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas, who currently are at Madoc Public, to Centre Hastings Secondary School, also in the village of Madoc. The change, which would take effect starting this coming school year (i.e. in September 2017), is proposed by the board because enrolment at CHSS and, to a lesser extent, Madoc Township Public School, is below the schools’ capacity and because (according to the board) maintenance and renovation requirements for the schools are higher “than the average for the system.”
The board’s process for deciding on whether to follow through with this proposal is to first set up what’s called an “accommodation review committee,” consisting of school and community representatives as well as the board’s regional superintendent of education. This committee’s job is to be the liaison between the community and the school board, and to provide the board’s elected trustees and administrators (unelected employees) with information, feedback and possible alternate courses of action, before the trustees make their final decision this coming June. (If you think that’s a tight timeline for such an important decision that affects so many people, notably children – you’re not alone.)
The committee for our three local schools having been duly formed, the first meeting for the public as a whole was held last week in the gym at CHSS. Turnout was good, though it would probably have been better had the meeting not been rescheduled by a day because of freezing rain, and had the weather not been bad on both the originally scheduled date and the new one.
The evening began with an hour-long presentation by board officials on the accommodation process – the background, the information about the schools that the board is working with, the timeline for the process, and so on. Doubtless this is a necessary step, though at one point I leaned over to my neighbour in the audience to wonder in a whisper whether they were trying to bore us into a catatonic state. All the information presented in the PowertPoint was already in everyone’s hands in the form of printouts that the board folks thoughtfully made available, so we basically went through it all twice. However, as a teacher I well know that you can’t present information too often if you want it to sink in, so I definitely am cutting the board people some slack on that point.
Then the floor was opened to questions, and that, of course, was the interesting part. There were questions about:
- The accuracy of information provided in the board’s profiles of the three schools. Rooms in the high school that are no longer classrooms were listed as such, one person pointed out; errors like that would skew the data on how much space in the school is underused. One parent perceptively pointed out that the board gave two different figures in two different places for capacity and usage at Madoc Township Public School. In one document, capacity was listed as 184 students, with an actual enrolment of 121, which translated to usage of 66 per cent. In another document, the enrolment of 121 stood but capacity was listed as 161, which gives a significantly higher usage rate of 75 per cent. Oddly, she was told that the 66-per-cent figure was the correct one; I say “oddly,” because according to the documents, the 161-capacity, 75-per-cent-usage figure was more recent than the other one. I think that’s one mystery for the accommodation committee to get to the bottom of.
- Whether the needs of the children had been considered, or was the board’s recommendation only about money. Noting the concern that many people have about “factory farms” and their impact on rural communities, the agriculture system and our food supply, one questioner suggested that recommendations like the one the board is considering are the educational equivalent: “factory schools.” Another, the mother of a child who’s in Grade 7 in the autism program at Madoc Public School, was almost in tears as she told the room that her son is not ready to be moved into a high-school environment as soon as this coming September. Another mum talked about her young children’s fearful questions to her about whether they’ll be riding the school bus with the big kids from high school.
- The advisability of closing a school – Madoc Township Public – with extraordinary playground facilities: 5½ acres, according to one questioner, closer to seven acres according to the board’s own documentation (compared to a little less than 2½ acres at Madoc Public School). Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager put it simply but well in his question from the floor: “There is room to play at Madoc Township Public School. Has that been taken into consideration?” Or, to quote a boy who bravely stepped up to the mike and said he is going into Grade 7 next year: “What will we do to go outside?” (Loud applause from the crowd to that, as to many of the questions asked at the meeting.)
- What about those renovations? One person asked two good questions on this topic: First, why does the board documentation suggest that all listed renovations ($7 million at the high school, $2.3 million at Madoc Public and $2.9 million at Madoc Township) need to be done more or less right now? Surely, she suggested, the work can and would be done in stages over a period of several years? And second: Has the board consulted with contractors to find out how accurate its cost estimates for the renovations are?
Now, at this point you might be wondering what kind of answers were given to these excellent questions. In fact, there were no answers. The audience was told that all the questions and concerns were being recorded, and that the issues raised would be for the accommodation committee to consider and work through. (If you think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a group of community volunteers – once again, you’re not alone.)
Okay, on to more of the questions from the floor:
- How do we contact members of the accommodation committee? This one actually got an answer: that there’ll be an email address for the committee on the board’s website. Speaking personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I don’t think queries should have to go through the school board’s email system. Also: I can’t as yet find that email address, though there is a listing of the committee members (without contact information) here.
- Who will make the final decision on what happens to the schools? Again, an answer: The elected trustees who sit on the board. Followup question #1: How many trustees are there? Answer: Ten. Followup question #2: How many of them are here tonight? Answer: Two. (Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray, who represent central Hastings County and southeast Hastings County respectively.) Followup question #3: So 80 per cent of the people who will be making the final decision aren’t here tonight? No answer needed. It was a rhetorical question, and a perfectly correct observation.
- What will happen down the road – or, as one questioner put it: “Where’s the growth going to go?” Closing Madoc Township Public School and moving the students to Madoc Public will completely fill that latter school up, and its attached land is small. Suppose, said the man at the mike, that even one good-sized company opens up in the area. Where would the children of its employees go to school? As I think about it, it strikes me that the smart subtext of that question is this: the board is betting on the failure of our rural area to attract growth and development, not its success. It’s betting on fewer people living here, not new people coming in. That, it seems to me, is unhelpful and unsupportive, and a big mistake.
Which leads me to some wise words that Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (the municipality that takes in Madoc village), offered up from the floor. He told the board representatives that he recognizes the problems they’re facing (provincial-government funding rules for schools, declining enrolment, etc.), and sympathetically added that he wouldn’t relish their job. But, he said, closing a community’s school is like pulling out any other critical facility, such as an arena.
It’s about a sense of community, he said, urging the board: “Please, please consider the social and economic benefits of that particular school when you’re making those decisions.”
And then, in a statement that I feel is utterly true and absolutely critical, he said: “Rural Ontario is different.” We’re not a city; urban issues are not the same as our issues. Here where we live, Mayor Deline said, “the sense of community is tremendous.” And schools are a big part of that.
Another person speaking from the floor echoed that sentiment, pointing out that most people who live in rural areas have chosen to do so because they appreciate rural life – including their children being able to go to rural schools. While I don’t have kids, I know I chose to live in this rural area because of the quality of life here. We may not have all the amenities of a city – a nearby hospital, a big choice of shops – but for us that’s more than outweighed by space, and beauty, and friendly neighbours who help you out when you need it, and – to quote Reeve Sager again – room for our kids to play.
Rural Ontario is different, as Mayor Deline said. It is time for the provincial government to do a better job of recognizing that, and to work with its subordinate agencies – like school boards – to support and enrich rural life. Not shut it down.
Which is why I think we all need to get involved here, and get our elected representatives involved. Our local MPP, Todd Smith, is in the Conservative opposition as opposed to the governing Liberals, but he can ask the government (notably the minister of education) some pointed questions about support for rural schools. Why not contact him? His Belleville constituency office’s number is 613-962-1144 (toll-free 1-877-536-6248); his Queen’s Park office is 416-325-2702; and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, when the provincial riding boundaries change next year to match up with recent federal-riding changes, our MPP may well be the Conservative nominee for the new riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, none other than our longtime former MP, Darryl Kramp – a Madoc resident who is widely known and respected throughout this area. Why not contact him (here is his Twitter) and ask if he can help?
And while we’re at it (and even though education is a provincial, not a federal, matter), why not contact the guy who defeated Mr. Kramp in the last federal election, Liberal MP Mike Bossio? He is from Madoc, went to school there – and, what is probably more important, is hugely supportive of rural issues. He is, in fact, chair of the federal government’s National Rural Caucus, and in that role has been making considerable noise over the past year on the need to support rural communities. Why not ask if he can help? You can find Mr. Bossio’s contact information here.
Then there are the trustees on the school board, not just the two who came out to last week’s meeting – Bonnie Danes (who, to her great credit, voted against the “accommodation” process being started for our area) and Justin Bray – but the other eight, or 80 per cent, who didn’t come. You can find their names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses here. They are your elected representatives, and their mandate is to bring forward your issues. Tell them what those issues and concerns are!
There are also our local municipal councillors. It was great to see Reeve Sager and Mayor Deline speaking out at the meeting, but it would even better to see their respective councils pulling out all the stops in standing up for their local schools and our rural way of life. You can find the members of Madoc Township council here and Centre Hastings council here. Please let them know how you feel.
Finally, you might request membership (I doubt that you’ll be turned down) in the new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School, where lots of useful information is being shared. It was there, for instance, that I learned that under provincial rules about planned school closings (you can read the full document here), the board has an obligation to consult with the affected municipalities and other community partners about issues around underused school space – and presumably how that underused space might be used by said community partners. The person who posted the information asked: Has that consultation happened? A very good question. At the public meeting last week, we were given no indication that it had.
Also on that Facebook page, you’ll find a link to this interesting article from yesterday’s Toronto Star on provincewide concerns not only about rural schools being threatened with closures, but about the process surrounding those closures. It is good to know that we aren’t alone; the more pressure that all of us rural people can put on the government, the more chance there is that changes will be made and that rural schools – and by extension rural communities – will be given support rather than a governmental kick in the shins.
So what’s next? Well, first we should all contact the people I’ve mentioned, and anyone else you can think of who might be able to help. Oh, gracious – how could I have forgotten? Contact Ontario’s education minister! Her name is Mitzie Hunter, and her contact information is here. And while you’re at it, how about Ontario’s minister of rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who’s from nearby Peterborough? Here is his contact information. And the minister of municipal affairs, Bill Mauro, whose ministry’s website promises that it is “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies, abundant greenspace and a high quality of life.” Bingo! Mr. Mauro’s contact information is here.
After that: attend meetings. The schedule the board has set up calls for there to be a meeting of the Madoc-area accommodation committee on Thursday, Feb. 9. I have inquired and have been told that a time and place for it have not yet been set, so stay tuned; that information will probably be provided through the three schools’ social-media (Facebook and Twitter) feeds, as well as under the “Upcoming Events” and/or “News Stand” sections of the school board’s website. There’s a followup meeting for the committee on Wednesday, March 1, but in between there are likely to be more informal school-by-school meetings – and at those, you will probably be allowed to speak, which we were informed at last week’s public meeting we could not do at the official committee meetings. (Though we are welcome to attend and be silent.)
On Wednesday, March 22, the board will hold the second of its two scheduled public meetings on the issue of changes to our three local schools. After that, it’s all about various board and committee meetings (you can see the full schedule here), and then the final decision at a board meeting Monday, June 19. Which is really not very far away.
The timeline is tight; the stakes are high; we probably have tough odds against us. But I feel sure that if we all do our part – by telling our elected representatives at every level how we (the people who elect them) feel, and by working together to come up with creative and innovative solutions to help the school board solve the tough problems it is up against – we have a really good shot. And in doing so, we can help others in rural Ontario who are facing the same problems and the same threat to their way of life.
I think this is a battle worth fighting. And that, with a lot of hard work, we can win.