Come stand up for your school – a little later than expected

Accommodation review photos from Quinte News

The process by which the school board decides to close schools has the education-jargony name “accommodation review.” In searching for stories on that subject on the website of Belleville’s Quinte News (which has done a good job of covering the process), I was struck by the images and headlines that came up. They don’t paint a particularly happy picture, do they? There is so much worry about our local schools.

Regular readers will probably remember my post two weeks ago in which I issued an appeal to all of you who care about the future of Madoc Township Public School to show up for two critical meetings of the local public school board.

That appeal to come in person to support our wonderful rural school remains as urgent as ever. But: the date of the first of those two meetings has been changed. So please don’t show up at board headquarters in Belleville this Tuesday, May 23 – unless, that is, you’re eager to sit through a regular meeting of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board just for the heck of it.

May 23 was the long-scheduled date for a meeting at which the trustees who sit on the board’s student enrolment/school capacity committee were to formulate their recommendation on the fate of the three schools in the Madoc/Queensborough area: rural Madoc Township Public School plus two schools within the village of Madoc, Centre Hastings Secondary School and Madoc Public School. That recommendation was to go to a meeting of the full board on Monday, June 19, for a final and deciding vote.

For reasons that remain unclear to all the local residents/taxpayers whom I have spoken to about it, the board’s administration unexpectedly sent out word late last week that this very important meeting would be moved to Monday, June 12. The word came last Thursday, the day before a long weekend. (Friday, May 19, was a professional-development day, so students were not in school on that last day before the Victoria Day holiday.) This sudden and last-minute change of plans seems odd.

The board administration’s official word on the matter, in the press release posted on its website Thursday, said this:

May 18, 2017—A new date has been scheduled for the Student Enrolment/School Capacity Committee to meet to prepare the final recommendation for the Centre Hastings accommodation review.

The new date is Monday, June 12, rescheduled from Tuesday, May 23.

June 12 was already scheduled for final recommendations for the Belleville and Prince Edward County accommodation reviews. This change is being made to allow recommendations for all three areas to be prepared on the same day. It should be noted that the required accommodation review timeline allows for the May 23rd meeting date to be later than May 23rd although not before.

All other timelines remain the same (see below). The final decision by the Board of Trustees will be made on Monday, June 19.

Interestingly, queries about this sudden change that one local MTPS supporter sent to the elected trustees resulted in an emailed response that started thus:

I understand that you have emailed Trustees about the change of date for the Student Enrolment/School Capacity Committee meeting to prepare the final recommendation  for Centre Hastings. I am responding on behalf of the Trustees.

The message, which went on to echo the wording in the above-cited press release, closed with:

I hope this helps.
Thank you
Mandy
Mandy Savery-Whiteway
Director of Education
Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board
613-966-1170 ext 2257

As director of education, Ms. Savery-Whiteway is the board’s top administrator. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wondering why the trustees, the people whom we have elected to make decisions on local education matters, did not respond themselves to such a straightforward question. I would not like to think they were told not to by board staff, and I hope that’s not the case.

Perhaps you are thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a date change.” Let me explain why I’m bothered by it. (And I know I am not alone.)

First: People had already made plans and changed their schedules – work, babysitting and otherwise – to be able to attend the long-scheduled May 23 meeting. A bit more notice of the change would have been both professional and polite.

Sign in front of the board office

An “Our Local Schools Matter” sign pitched outside school-board headquarters the last time the trustees were discussing the future of much-loved Madoc Township Public School.

Second: The originally scheduled meeting was to have been exclusively for the committee to consider the future of the three schools in the Madoc area – and there is a lot to consider. As you’ll know if you’ve been following this story (and if you’d like to catch up, just click on the category “Madoc Township Public School” on this blog’s home page), over the past few months there have been many meetings, many concerns, many discoveries of flawed information and problematic conclusions in materials prepared by and for the board’s administrators. The committee set up by the board to look into the initial proposal – to close Madoc Township Public School, send its kids to Madoc Public, and move students in Grades 7 and 8 into the high school – rejected it, and came up with two alternate plans, both of which would be better for local students and for the community as a whole. (Details on those alternate plans here.) So far those alternative proposals have gone nowhere with the board’s administrators. But that could easily change in a forum for the trustees to openly discuss the process and the conclusions – which is what the May 23 meeting was to have been.

Full house at CHSS

The gym at the high school in Madoc has been packed by people worried about our local schools at both public meetings to discuss the school board’s closure/consolidation plan.

Now, that full open discussion can still take place at the meeting on Monday, June 12. But here’s the rub: as the board’s press release and Ms. Savery-Whiteway’s letter note, the June 12 meeting will also see the committee consider two other highly contentious school-closure/consolidation proposals, one for the Belleville area and one for Prince Edward County. That is a lot of important decision-making to cram into one meeting, and I have concerns (and did I mention that I know I’m not alone?) that the hard facts of time limits plus the limits of human attention spans and energy levels will come into play – curbing trustees’ leanings toward challenging board administrators’ proposals and then going through the time-consuming process of discussing and agreeing on wording for motions that differ from those proposals.

I hope I’m wrong about this. I also hope there’s a good supply of strong coffee for the trustees at the June 12 meeting.

My third (I hesitate to say final) concern: There is only one week between the June 12 meeting at which the final recommendation is formulated and the June 19 meeting of the full board at which the recommendation is voted on. Less time between meetings means less time for community members concerned about the final recommendation to hold discussions, contact trustees, lobby and so on. May I be allowed to be suspicious about this newly reduced time frame?

And by the way: you may be as unimpressed as I was to learn that the June 12 meeting is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. Which means it will be extremely difficult for anyone to attend if they work during the day and/or have small kids coming home from school mid-afternoon. That’s a large portion of the community ruled out. Now, members of the public are not allowed to speak at or participate in the committee meeting; but it’s still important for them to be able to see their elected trustees in action when those trustees make community-changing decisions on school closures. Does it seem right to you that this session should be scheduled for a time when the majority of the public can’t attend? Me neither.

At any rate, if you were one of the community members who had planned to attend the May 23 meeting to show support for our school, I hope that you can and will revise your schedule to be at school-board headquarters (156 Ann St., Belleville) at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 12.

And between now and then, please don’t hesitate to call, write and/or email your local trustees and all the rest of the trustees (full list with contact information here) to tell them how important Madoc Township Public School is to our children and our community. This process has been long and hard, and I think we’re all feeling a little worn down. Sudden curve balls from the people holding most of the cards don’t help at all. But a united stand and a strong show of support can make all the difference.

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.

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.

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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.

Here are the documents you’re apparently not supposed to see

Madoc Township Public School, March 2017

Madoc Township Public School on a sunny late-winter day, looking like the classic Ontario rural school. Which, in fact, it is.

Important update to this post, one day later: This morning Kim Horrigan, the public school board’s manager of planning, returned the call to her I made yesterday (the one I refer to below), and we were able to chat this afternoon. Ms. Horrigan noted that the alternative recommendations made by the members of the accommodation review committee are referenced in the notes from the meeting that are posted on the board’s website here (Item 5 on Page 4). When I asked if the complete documents prepared by the committee members would be posted (explaining that people in the community have been eager to read and discuss them, especially with the final public meeting coming up on March 22), she said they would appear on the board’s website today or tomorrow. I thank her for getting back to me, and I thank the board in advance for posting these documents!

The plot thickens.

A little less than two weeks ago, I reported (here) on the startling and encouraging conclusion to the process looking at possible public-school closures and consolidations here in our area. That surprise conclusion was this: the community volunteers and school representatives who made up the committee established by the public school board stood up and said in no uncertain terms that they were not happy with the plan produced by the board’s administration, and they put forward two strong alternatives.

(Now, for those who haven’t been following this issue as closely as I and some others have, here is the short version: the board’s plan is to close Madoc Township Public School – here in tiny Queensborough, that’s our school), bus its students to space- and playground-challenged Madoc Public School, and move all Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas into Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc. You can read my previous posts on this plan and how it’s been greeted by clicking on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the right-hand side of the Meanwhile, at the Manse home page here.)

The first of the two recommendations from the community group (which was burdened with the clunky name “accommodation review committee”) was to restore Madoc Township Public School to its original vocation as an all-grades elementary school. When the school was built in the 1960s, amid much community excitement about getting a modern centralized educational facility, that meant Grades 1 to 8; now it would be kindergarten to Grade 8. The recommendation was backed up by all kinds of common-sense reasoning, which MTPS members of the committee read out to that March 1 meeting.

Recommendation #1

Madoc Township Public School representatives (from left, Wendy Spence, Amy Beaton and Margaret Heard) read out Recommdation #1 at the March 1 meeting.

Basically, they said, if Madoc Township were allowed to have all students in its catchment area up to Grade 8, the building would be full, and fully used. And all those kids would be able to take advantage of its wide open spaces (seven acres of playgrounds and fields), as well as its personalized attention to students, intimate and friendly country atmosphere, and first-place results in academics. In this scenario, Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School would be consolidated into a single school in “town,” leaving our lovely rural school fully used in its unparalleled rural setting.

Recommendation #2

Representatives of all three local schools (from left, Kari Kramp from Madoc Public, Margaret Heard from MTPS and Diane Bolton from Centre Hastings Secondary) read the committee’s Recommendation #2.

The second recommended alternative to the board administration’s proposal was that a new purpose-built kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school, housing students from all three of the existing schools, be built. This is not the preferred option for us supporters of MTPS, but it definitely has its pluses: brand-new facilities, state-of-the-art accessibility and energy efficiency, and so on.

Okay, so far so good. The final accommodation review committee meeting is held Wednesday, March 1. The committee makes its two recommendations running counter to the plan from the board administration. We die-hard spectators in the audience applaud their bravery, common sense and good research. (Again, you can read all about that long evening, and even hear our applause, here.) The people from the board administration who are running this process don’t look too happy. Meeting adjourned.

And then we wait for the two alternate recommendations and their supporting documentation to show up on the board’s website. After all, the committee and the public had been promised by board officials that all the proceedings and comments and submissions at the meetings of the accommodation committee would be posted there. I know I was far from alone in being eager to see the full text of these alternate recommendations, so they could be shared around and discussed in the community ahead of the final public meeting on the issue, to be held Wednesday, March 22.

Day 1: Nothing on the board’s website. Day 2: Nothing. Day 3: Nothing. Day 4: Nothing. Day 5: Nothing.

I think you’re getting the picture.

As I write this, it’s now Day 12 since that meeting was held. Still nothing.

This morning I called the two board officials who have been leading this process, superintendent of education Cathy Portt and manager of planning Kim Horrigan, to ask why this is. I got their voicemails in both cases, and left messages with both that included my callback number. I did not get a callback. Now, that may be because it’s March Break. But March Break or not, this is an issue of critical importance in our area.

Update: Kim Horrigan called me back the next day. See note at the top of this post.

You may draw your own conclusions from all this. I will only say that I worry that in keeping under wraps these key recommendations from a committee set up by the board, the board administration is leaving not only the public as a whole in the dark – but also the publicly elected trustees who sit on the board. With the exception of local trustee Bonnie Danes, none of these 10 elected officials were at that March 1 meeting; none of them heard the recommendations read out. Yet these 10 people are the ones who hold in their hands the power to let Madoc Township Public School live or die. They are the ones who can and will decide within a very short time what the future will hold for our local schools.

So since the board isn’t releasing the documents, I am. As they say in the news business, they have been obtained by Meanwhile, at the Manse.

Please read them, all the way through. A lot of hard work, research and time went into putting them together. They point out problems in the board administration’s proposal. They put kids and community first. They are written in a spirit of optimism for the future.They make a lot of sense. There may be some references you’re not sure about; don’t worry about that – they’re minor. (If, for instance, you’re wondering what “VFA” is – it’s a big multinational company that carries out – according to its Canadian website – “end-to-end solutions for facilities capital planning and management” for organizations like school boards.)

Here’s Recommendation #1: Keep Madoc Township Public School open as a K-to-8 school:

download

And here’s Recommendation #2: Build a new K-to-12 school:

download

I think you should ask yourself: why does the school board’s administration apparently not want us to see these documents?

Meanwhile, a reminder that the next (and final) public meeting to discuss the future of the three Madoc-area schools takes place Wednesday, March 22, at 6:30 p.m., at Centre Hastings Secondary School. Notices placed by the board in the local newspapers say that if you wish to speak at the meeting, you must sign up to do so:

Notice about Public Meeting #2

It is critical that we have a strong turnout, a solid show of support for our schools. This, people, is your chance to have your say.

Also, the subcommittee of the school board that deals with enrolment and school-capacity issues meets this coming Monday, March 20, at 3:30 p.m. at board headquarters, 156 Ann St., Belleville. There is no way to tell whether issues relating to our schools will come up, because the agenda has not yet been posted on the board’s website. (You can check here to see if it is in the coming days.) However, this is a public meeting and it sure would be great if one or more of the concerned citizens from our area were able to attend. If nothing else, it is always helpful to see the trustees and the board administrators in action and get a sense of how they operate and where they’re coming from.

It seems ever more critical that we keep an eye on things. It’s our tax dollars we’re talking about – and more importantly, our kids’ and communities’ future.

A community comes together for a cause: saving our schools

bob-sager-at-public-meeting

Everyone was listening hard as Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager made the case from the floor for the importance of Madoc Township Public School and its unmatched playground at last week’s public meeting about the future of the school.

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.
Tom Deline speaks at public meeting

“Rural Ontario IS different:” the wise words of Centre Hastings Mayor Tom Deline.

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 todd.smithco@pc.ola.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.

save-madoc-township-public-school-facebook-page

The new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School. Please join!

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.

And last but not least: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Her 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.