No one else can take your place.

Denise distributes the dimes

Making the message real: Denise Gray, a hardworking community activist in the fight to save Madoc Township Public School, hands out a dime to each of the school-board trustees at a recent meeting – to help them remember how little playground space will be available to local schoolchildren if MTPS is closed.

Many people around here have complained about the dizzyingly fast process set up by the local public school board to decide on the fate of several schools, including the one that serves Queensborough and matters most to us: Madoc Township Public School. People have argued persuasively that it’s senseless and unjust to have a public consultation and review process beginning only five months before the board’s final decision is to be made. Likewise, families with children at MTPS, and really the community as a whole, are appalled that the aforementioned final decision is to be made in mid-June, only days before the end of the school year. If that decision goes against the continued life of Madoc Township Public School, forcing its students to be bused into the village of Madoc starting in September, we will have just a few days to say goodbye to a place that has been immeasurably important in the life of our local community. “Cruel” comes to mind as the most appropriate adjective for this process. It’s cruel to the kids to uproot them so suddenly; and it’s cruel to the community to tear its heart out with so little time and thought given to more constructive possibilities.

That all said – and that all being 100-per-cent true – in some ways it’s starting to feel like the process has been a long-drawn-out one. There was a flurry of meetings at the outset, in January, February and March and even into April; but now, according to the schedule prepared by the school board, it’s a bit of a waiting game. Only two more meetings on the subject are scheduled: one on Tuesday, May 23, when a committee of board trustees prepares a final recommendation for the full board to vote on; and the one at which the vote on that recommendation takes place, on Monday, June 19. At neither of those meetings is the public allowed to speak; that ship has sailed. But – and this is a very big but, and the point of this post:

These are public meetings.

This means that you can attend them.

And I’m going to tell you why it’s critical that you do attend them.

Both of the special sessions at which the public was invited to speak on the school-consolidation proposal were well-attended. (For those who are just joining us from Mars, that proposal is:

  • to close Madoc Township Public School this June;
  • to send its students to Madoc Public School, a building in town that is not in nearly as good physical shape as MTPS, and that has an extreme shortage of playground space;
  • and to move all kids in Grades 7 and 8 from both schools’ catchment areas over to the high school in Madoc, Centre Hastings Secondary.)

But attendance at every other meeting that has taken place as part of the process has not been nearly as robust. Part of the reason is doubtless that people don’t necessarily want to sit through a meeting at which they can’t say anything, especially when the topic under discussion is one that means a lot to them and they really want to be able to speak about. Another reason is probably that the small group of people who have been attending and keeping an eye on the process has done a good job of getting the news out to the community, consulting with the community, and working to ensure community concerns are brought forward in any way possible. It is possible that this group is in some ways a victim of its own hard work and dedication: these people are doing such a good job of representing the community as a whole that the community as a whole feels it can stay home.

Well, that may have been true earlier in the process; but it’s not true now. On Tuesday, May 23, and Monday, June 19, you need to show up.

Both meetings take place at the school board’s headquarters, which is at 156 Ann St., Belleville. The time of the meetings has not yet been announced (though the June 19 one will probably be at 7 p.m.); I will keep you posted, or stay tuned to the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page.

Sign in front of the board office

I strongly suspect that it was activists working to save Madoc Township Public School who planted “Our Local Schools Matter” signs on the front lawn of the public school board’s Belleville headquarters ahead of a meeting on the school’s future held late last month. Good one!

The most recent demonstration of the impressive work of the volunteers supporting Madoc Township Public School came at a meeting at school-board headquarters in Belleville on Wednesday, April 26. It was a meeting of the trustees who sit on the board’s student enrolment/school capacity committee, and it was the public’s last chance to make presentations on the closure/consolidation proposal. (That same committee is the one that, on May 23, will be formulating the final recommendation that goes to the full 10-trustee board for a vote June 19.) Anyone who wanted to speak had to register five business days ahead of time; there was nothing impromptu about the exercise.

As I sat there and listened to the presentations, I was so proud of the hard work, research, passion and dedication of the speakers. I was impressed and heartened by the fact that the trustees who sit on the committee appeared to be paying very close attention to the points that were being made, with many of them taking notes throughout. This suggests that the decision is not a done deal, and that there is still quite a bit of hope that the trustees will vote against the recommendation made by the administrators who work for them.

But I can tell you this: that ray of hope will be a whole lot wider and brighter if the community shows up in strength on May 23 and June 19.

Let me return to the presentations made at that April 26 meeting. You can read a news report on it here (and see, in the accompanying photo, me furiously taking notes). But I’d like to share a few points from my notes on what was said, to give you a sense of the good work that’s being done by these volunteers to further our children’s education and well-being, and to nurture the growth and health of our rural community by saving our school:

  • Board administrators have offered no proof that the changes will give local children any access to enriched programs – one of the supposed reasons for the change.
  • The board’s own projections show enrolment at Madoc Township Public School (alone among the three local schools) growing, rather than declining.
  • If students in Grades 7 and 8 from Madoc Township and area were allowed to attend MTPS (as was recommended by the very citizens’ committee the board struck to review its administration’s plan), the school would be at or near capacity. (This recommendation was, it was pointed out, ignored by the board’s administration in preparing its final report to the trustees.)
  • Closing a school with relatively low renewal (renovation) needs – like MTPS – and moving students to a school where much more work needs to be done (Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary) would be a gamble by the board. The hoped-for outcome would be more money overall from the provincial government to repair decaying school facilities; but there is no guarantee that this money will come. In the meantime, a school in good condition (MTPS)  is lost forever.
  • The lack of any dates or timeliness in the final report by the board’s administrators is problematic. Let me explain: the administration’s final report on what is to happen to our local schools varies from its initial one in that it throws out a vague plan to “make a business case” to the provincial government for money to build a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school for all local students. MTPS would still be closed this June, and students in Grades 7 and 8 would still go to the high school in September, so nothing would change from Plan A; but the board would ask the government for money for a new school, and if the government said no, it would consolidate MPS and CHSS as a K-to-12 school in the CHSS building. There is no timeline attached to this recommendation; there is no sense that the funding request has any chance of being approved. As one of the presenters on April 26 said: “Is this smart?” And she added: “How can so many uncertainties get our board to a sustainable state?” Another presenter said: “A lack of timelines implies a lack of accountability.”
  • The high school in Madoc is lacking in the kinds of programs and courses that students in 2017 want to take, which means many of them seize the option offered by the local Roman Catholic school board and catch the school bus to attend high school in Belleville. This causes enrolment issues at CHSS – issues that the public board seems to be trying to resolve by closing an excellent rural elementary school. Why not, asked this speaker, address the real issue by adding useful and innovative courses at the high school, like business? Or agriculture? “Bring these subjects and opportunities to the high school and students will go there,” she told the board. I would file this under “thinking creatively when confronted with a problem.”
  • There are notable inaccuracies in the report prepared for the trustees by the board’s administration about the condition of Madoc Township Public School. Improvements and repairs that have recently been done were not included, and the report suggested that a lot more money needs to be spent on the school than is actually the case. One speaker put it well: “The heavy lifting (on renovations) is done at Madoc Township Public School. It is fiscally irresponsible to close it now.” He also called the inaccurate reporting of the school’s condition “pernicious.”
  • (Which reminds me of a question that keeps popping into my head: How many of the trustees who will decide the future of Madoc Township Public School have visited it? I sure hope that by the time they cast their votes on June 19, all 10 of them will have.)
  • Madoc Township Public School green space poster

    Randy Gray with his scale model showing the playground space at Madoc Township Public School (that would be the great big green area) and at Madoc Public School (the tiny dime in the middle).

    And then there is the playground situation: Madoc Township Public School with its more than five acres of green space; Madoc Public School with a fraction of that. How small a fraction? Well, at the April 26 meeting, (grand)parent activist Randy Gray once again brought the show-and-tell display he’d first unveiled at one of the big public meetings: a large piece of green Bristol board representing the space for kids to run and play at MTPS, in the centre of which is a dime, representing the space that kids in junior kindergarten to Grade 3 at MTPS have to play in. And he had a story about visiting that small MPS space with his little grandson, Liam, an avid athlete like his granddad – his Pop – before him. Here’s what Liam had to say when he took a look at the tiny Madoc Public School playground: “Pop, where are we going to play soccer?” And here’s his Pop’s followup question, directed at the school trustees: “What’s the right answer to that?” (As Randy was making his presentation, his wife, Denise, was handing out symbolic dimes to the trustees, to help them keep in mind this playground/greenspace disparity. Brilliant!)

  • Finally, there was an impressive and moving presentation by two members of Madoc Township council. Councillor Randy Rowe asked the trustees why the board would not, rather than close high-performing and greenspace-rich MTPS, make it a model for other schools. That’s a really good question. And Councillor Carrie Smith summoned up her usual quiet eloquence in making a passionate plea for her community, emphasizing again and again that the board administration’s proposal would result in the closure of the only school in that community. A few excerpts:
    • “Closure of a school leaves people with a diminished sense of community and a fear for the municipality’s future … The constant rural restructuring and never-ending school closures are going to alter rural life in Ontario. We are making these decisions on the backs of our rural communities, but what is the impact to our rural residents’ lives? For our rural communities to thrive, students must be supported by high-quality education.”

    • “The urban migration of the younger generation is putting a burden on our rural communities … The government encourages immigration as a way to fill this void. How does a rural municipality encourage the settlement of these individuals without a school to offer?”

    • “We cannot all live in urban areas. Rural Ontario must maintain a working-age population, and we must find a way to attract immigrants to our municipalities, retain our youth or attract new working-age persons. We cannot attract business without these residents. We cannot attract new people or retain people without the basic requirement of a school.”

    • “Should it not be imperative for the board to encourage physical activity, especially at a time that children are experiencing health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles? So many people have stood up during this process and clearly articulated the importance of the playground at Madoc Township Public School. This area is used by our residents as a common green space – a community hub, if you will – after regular school hours. Once we lose this area, it is gone forever for our community.”

    • “Nothing in this proposal as recommended by the board is what is in the best interest of the youth, residents and the community. And I can only recommend that the trustees seriously consider the option that would see the return of Grade 7 and Grade 8 to the Township School.”

    • “The rate of return on the investment in public education in rural Ontario is worth the risk if we give it a chance.”

There’s no way I could say it better.

So here’s the deal, people of the Madoc Township/Queensborough/Tudor and Cashel Township community: it’s important that we show up and show solidarity in this thing. The closing of Madoc Township Public School is not a done deal; the hard work of a small group of dedicated people has seen to that. Please support that work, and your school, and by extension your community’s future, by appearing in quiet solidarity at the meetings on May 23 and June 19. It is a lot harder for an elected official to speak and vote for a school closure if he or she is facing a roomful of people whose families and community will be hurt by that decision. In a near-empty room, it’s a lot easier.

Let’s pack that room.

Please try to book that shift off work; maybe you can switch with a co-worker. Call up the babysitter, or your mother or father-in-law, or a friend, to look after the kids for a few hours. Tear yourself away from whatever TV show you like to watch; you can always PVR it.

We get one shot at this, people. One shot.

A long time ago, a band called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded a song encouraging people to show up and protest governmental injustice and wrong-headedness in Chicago. The message of the song was essentially this: Just show up. It makes all the difference. “Won’t you please come to Chicago for the help that we can bring?,” they harmonized beautifully. “We can change the world … Won’t you please come to Chicago, show your face? … No one else can take your place.” Hey, what the heck; let’s have a listen:

On Tuesday, May 23, and Monday, June 19, no one else can take your place in that boardroom at 156 Ann St, Belleville. Our community’s school and future are at stake. Please come.

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