Will our local school matter when our elected trustees vote?

Cooper Road sign 2“Our Local Schools Matter,” proclaim the signs that have sprung up throughout the Madoc Township area, including all over Queensborough.

While the signs are being distributed throughout the province – because rural schools all over Ontario are being threatened with closure in a steamroller disaster that, so far, the provincial government has declined to stop or even slow – in our area they are an expression of people’s deep concern about the future of our local school: Madoc Township Public School.

That would be the school with a tremendous local heritage, a top rating for student achievement, an outdoor play and exploration area of more than five acres, a reputation for individual attention to students, a pastoral rural setting – and a place firmly fixed in the hearts of all local community members, many of whom attended it, sent their children there, and now watch proudly as their grandchildren grow to be accomplished, kind and well-rounded young people inside its classrooms.

If all that doesn’t add up to a recipe for shutting down a school, I don’t know what does.

(I assume you detected the extreme sarcasm in my voice just now.)

But, yes, shutting down Madoc Township Public School continues to be what the bureaucrats who work for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board are recommending.

Their recommendation – presented at a meeting last week, which I’ll tell you about presently – comes despite a public consultation process that saw the board officials’ own chosen review committee reject the plan and come up with not one but two alternatives. I can tell you right now that if you asked anyone – anyone – in our area whether he or she feels the alternate proposals would be better for our communities, and most importantly for our children, than the original one from the board staff, you would get an answer in the affirmative.

For those who haven’t been following my posts on this critical local issue for the past months (you can see them all if you click on “Madoc Township Public School” in the categories list on the right side of this blog’s home page), I’ll try to sum up quickly the series of recommendations.

Here is what the board employees initially proposed back in November:

  • Close rural Madoc Township Public, currently a kindergarten-to-Grade 6 school, in June 2017.
  • Bus MTPS students into the village of Madoc and put them in Madoc Public School (which is an aging building with extremely limited playground space).
  • Move students in Grades 7 and 8 from both schools’ catchment areas – students in those grades currently attend Madoc Public – into the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary in Madoc, thus turning CHSS into a Grade-7-to-12 school.

Here are the two alternate proposals that the school, parent and community representatives on the board’s clunkily named “accommodation review committee” recommended instead, having given the matter a lot of study and spent a lot of time listening to the community:

  • Return Madoc Township-area students in Grades 7 and 8 to MTPS, thus filling the school and allowing the community’s children to be educated in their community – and in an outstanding rural school. Consolidate Madoc Public School and CHSS.
  • Build a brand-new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school serving all area students. While it’s still in the planning and construction stages (probably three years or so), leave the three schools alone.

And here, verbatim, is the final recommendation presented by the board’s employees last week:

  • Effective September 2017, consolidate Madoc Township Public and Madoc Public School at the Madoc Public School site;
  • Effective September 2017, relocate Grade 7 and 8 students from Madoc Public School to Centre Hastings Secondary School, creating a Grade 7-12 school;
  • Centre Hastings Secondary School and Madoc Public School be consolidated pending
    submission of a business case to the Ministry of Education and approval of funding to build a new K-12 school located in the Madoc area and with consultation with the municipality regarding location options and plans to enhance greenspace for the K-12 school;
  • Should a business case for a new K-12 school not be approved by the Ministry of Education, Madoc Public School be consolidated with Centre Hastings Secondary School as K-12 school, pending Ministry of Education approval for an addition and/or renovations at Centre Hastings Secondary School and then demolish Madoc Public School to create green space for the K-12 school; and
  • Continue to explore opportunities for community partnerships for the consolidated school that are aligned with the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan priorities.

As you can see, nothing has changed from the board’s administration when it comes to immediate actions. The recommendation remains this: close MTPS and move the middle-school kids into the high school, as of this coming September.

The new stuff is vaguer than vague. Leaving aside the “continue to explore opportunities for community partnerships” final point, which absent specifics means exactly nothing, we have a plan to, at some unspecified future date, consolidate all kids at the high school; then at some unspecified future date ask the provincial government for money to build a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school; then, if the government says no to that, just leave the kids at the high school and tear down the old Madoc Public School to create some more green space. (Which would still be a small fraction of the green space at Madoc Township Public School. But too bad – MTPS has to go. Because – well, just because.)

The recommendation was presented last Wednesday at a meeting of the school board’s student enrolment/school capacity committee, and I was one of the concerned MTPS supporters who attended to observe.

One thing I want to stress before I tell you about what took place during that brief (half an hour or so) meeting is that the trustees who sat around the table that day are not the people who wrote this recommendation. The 10 elected trustees are the board, and they make the decisions on behalf of us, the citizens who elected them and whom they represent. But the people who prepare almost all the reports and recommendations on which the elected trustees vote are the staff who work for the board. They are public servants whose salaries are paid by you and me; but they are not “the board.” These staffers have recommended that our school be closed. But it is the 10 trustees – ordinary people like you and me, elected by you and me to represent you and me and, most importantly, our schoolchildren – who will decide whether to accept or reject that recommendation.

Student enrolment/school capacity meeting

The top end of the table at the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board’s student enrolment/school capacity meeting last Wednesday. Central Hastings trustee Bonnie Danes is in foreground at left; southeast Hastings trustee Justin Bray is sixth from right on the other side of the table, while Belleville/Thurlow trustee Mary Hall is fourth from right. Director of education Mandy Savery-Whiteway, the board’s top administrator, is at the head of the table at left.

The trustees didn’t say a lot at last Wednesday’s meeting; they were told by administration that the purpose of the meeting was to receive the staffers’ recommendation. (As a longtime observer of school boards, I can tell you that it is quite common for administration to tell trustees what they can and can’t do. In some ways this is understandable; the administrators are professionals who are paid well to understand and implement the rules of the Ontario education system in all its arcane minutiae. They are smart and good at what they do; they wouldn’t be in those well-paid positions if they weren’t. It’s only natural that trustees – who are doubtless also smart, but in general are not trained education bureaucrats – tend to look to their staff for guidance on most matters.)

But what was said was encouraging. Our local trustees, Bonnie Danes (who represents central Hastings County) and Justin Bray (who represents southeast Hastings), were outstanding.

Bonnie Danes

Central Hastings public-school trustee Bonnie Danes, who is doing a great job standing up for Madoc Township Public School.

Bonnie Danes asked about enrolment projections for our three local schools that the board’s top administrator, director of education Mandy Savery-Whiteway, had tossed out in her oral introduction to her staff’s final recommendation. “Are these numbers in the report?” asked Mrs. Danes. (Despite the final recommendation being fairly brief, the report in which it was included contained more than 150 pages of related information.) After a fair bit of preamble about how these were new numbers that staff is just now working on, that it’s all “in process this spring,” Ms. Savery-Whiteway said that no, they were not in the report.

But if they’re the numbers on which the administrators are basing their final recommendation, shouldn’t they be something more concrete than “in process”? (That’s me talking.)

Mrs. Danes’s next question: Are they somewhere where we can see them?

Long answer short: Eventually they will be.

Hmmm. (That’s me again.)

Justin Bray

Justin Bray, trustee for southeast Hastings, who asked some pointed questions about the lack of specifics (notably dates) in the board administration’s recommendation last week.

Justin Bray asked about the lack of any date on the new-school part of the final recommendation. He made the excellent point that there will be a provincial election next year, and that its outcome can and probably will have a huge outcome on funding for things like hoped-for new schools.

Bonnie Danes joined in on this lack of any date in the recommendation, noting that the recommendation by the accommodation review committee for a new school was that it be ready for the 2021-22 school year. “There is no way we could be assured that would happen,” was what Ms. Savery-Whiteway told her, having already talked about how long it can take to get a response to an application to the government for new-school funding, and how one can’t be sure that the request will even be considered.

The director of education also said something in response to Mrs. Danes’s question that caught my attention, and that I added to my notes with several question marks beside it.

“We want to go after those consolidation dollars,” she said. “We want to be strategic.” What does that mean?

Well, one possible interpretation (courtesy of the lobby group Ontario Alliance Against School Closures) is this: under provincial funding rules, school boards have a better chance of getting money from the provincial government (under its School Consolidation Capital Allocation program, for example) if the buildings still open after schools have been consolidated are in bad physical condition. In this scenario, it makes sense (in a crazy sort of way) to close schools that are in relatively good shape (like Madoc Township Public School), plunk the kids into an inferior building (hello, Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary) and then plead for cash because those schools are deteriorating.

Do you feel like you’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone? Yeah, me too. I would like to think this is not what the director of education was referring to when she talked about being strategic and going after “consolidation dollars” – and I am sure she wouldn’t frame the way the program (and the strategy) works in the same blunt terms as the anti-school-closing group does. But still, it makes one wonder. And question. Which is a good thing.

Anyway. I was encouraged by a trustee from outside our area, Mary Hall (who represents Belleville/Thurlow) questioning the school maintenance costs contained in the administrators’ report. Mrs. Hall is one of the seven board trustees who came to the second and final public meeting held last month on the local school plan, and it was clear from her comments last week, even though they were brief, that she had paid attention to the concerns expressed at that meeting about inaccuracies and inconsistencies in information prepared by board administrators.

As the meeting moved to its swift close, Bonnie Danes managed to get in one final, powerful statement.

She pointed out that if students in Grades 7 and 8 from Madoc Township and environs were returned to MTPS (which was what it was built for in the first place, and which the board-established accommodation review committee has recommended), the school would be at or near capacity. Enrolment problem solved, just like that.

She also expressed concern about a proposal that would close the one and only school in a rural municipality (Madoc Township) and the impact the closure would have on the community.

“I have grave concerns about closing the only school in a municipality and piggybacking onto another municipality (Madoc) for a new build (the K-to-12 school) that may or may not happen,” she said. “In the meantime, Madoc Township Public School is lost.

“And that’s problematic.”

Well said, Trustee Danes! I hope you and Trustee Bray can and will influence at least four other board members to vote against this recommendation which is, to quote you: problematic.

Readers, take note: Here’s what happens next in this process.

On Wednesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m., at the board’s headquarters at 156 Ann St. in Belleville, the student enrolment/school capacity committee will hear delegations from the public about the administrators’ final proposal. If you want to have your say, you have to register as a delegation at least five business days in advance of the meeting – so to be safe, before the close of business on Wednesday, April 19. That is this coming Wednesday. The registration form is on the board’s website; here is a direct link. Even if you don’t want to speak, you may attend; the meeting is public.

On Tuesday, May 23, the same committee meets again to prepare a recommendation to the full board (all 10 trustees). This too is a public meeting. As far as I can tell from the school-board website, a time has not yet been set for the meeting. It will probably take place at board headquarters in Belleville. I will keep you posted.

And then the final vote by the trustees is to take place Monday, June 19. If you don’t want to see Madoc Township Public School, our outstanding rural school, closed, please call, write and email all the trustees, preferably many times, between now and then. Their contact information is here. All that’s needed is six of the 10 to vote against this flawed recommendation and the devastating impact it will have on our community.

Because, you know: Our local schools matter!

I can tell that the voters – you know, the ones who pay the freight for school boards and so on – think so too. Here’s a gallery showing all the “Local schools matter” signs that I’ve spotted in Queensborough and adjacent Madoc Township in recent days. Yes, the photos all look very much the same; but I can assure you that they are all of different signs in different places.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One hopes that if the message is repeated often enough, everyone will get it – and most especially, at least six of our elected public school trustees. Because they hold the fate of our school in their hands.

2 thoughts on “Will our local school matter when our elected trustees vote?

  1. ” In this scenario, it makes sense (in a crazy sort of way) to close schools that are in relatively good shape (like Madoc Township Public School), plunk the kids into an inferior building (hello, Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary) and then plead for cash because those schools are deteriorating.”

    This is undoubtedly the same logic behind the Board’s proposal to close Quinte SS and move the students to Centennial SS [FCI = 58%] & Moira SS [FCI = 65%], both of which have much higher FCI ratings than Quinte [FCI = 30%]

    • It is a crazy system that allows and even encourages this stuff. The provincial government really needs to get its act together so that school boards don’t have to make these terrible decisions.

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