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.
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.
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:
And here’s Recommendation #2: Build a new K-to-12 school:
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:
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.
How often do you tune in the proceedings of the Ontario legislature? Not very, I’m willing to bet. Can’t say as I ever have. But tomorrow (Tuesday, March 7, 2017) would be a very good time to do so. Why? Because starting sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., and running to 6 p.m., there will be debate and a vote on a motion to place a moratorium on the provincial government’s school-closing process – you know, the one that threatens the excellent rural school that serves Queensborough, Madoc Township Public School.
- Whereas, school closures have a devastating impact on local communities; and
- Whereas, children deserve to be educated in their communities and offered the best opportunity to succeed; and
- Whereas, rural schools often represent the heart of small towns across Ontario;
- Therefore, the Legislative Assembly calls for an immediate moratorium on rural school closures and an immediate review of the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline.
Now, having never in my life, to my recollection, watched the live proceedings at the Ontario legislature, I found myself wondering how I could watch this debate on a topic of such vital importance to our own community and to our rural counterparts across the province. Clicking here on the Queen’s Park website, I learned that “Sessions of the Legislature are broadcast via cable tv across Ontario.” Right. Well, here in deepest rural Ontario, we don’t have cable TV (though our friends in the village of Madoc do – the ever-excellent CHTV). So our only option is to watch a live stream online, and the place to do that is here. All I can say is: thank God we finally got decent internet service in Queensborough!
In advance of the debate, some local people have been writing letters to Premier Wynne, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, and of course their own MPPs. I urge you to check out some of the brilliant letters that the writers have shared on the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page, and if you feel inclined to do so, follow suit. Every letter and every phone call makes a difference. An avalanche of letters and, especially, phone calls can make a huge difference.
To that end, the group called Rural Schools Matter, which is fighting school closures in rural Stone Mills Township a little to the east of us, is posting contact information for MPPs, notably the Liberal MPPs from rural areas, on its Facebook page. Because they’re in the party in power, those elected representatives will have more sway with the government than do MPPs from Mr. Brown’s opposition and from the New Democratic Party. Urging them to stand up to their own party’s misguided process is a very constructive thing to do. One notable name on that list is the MPP for neighbouring Peterborough (including rural Peterborough County), Jeff Leal – who also happens to be the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. Mr. Leal’s contact info is here. And here is a list of all the Liberal MPPs, including the premier and the education minister. Contact info for each one can be obtained by clicking on his/her name.
It will be interesting and instructive to see how the government responds to the questions that Mr. Brown and his team will pose. I will be horrified if the premier and the education minister fail to show up; that would be sheer cowardice, in my view. It will also be very interesting to see if Liberal MPPs from rural areas take a stand against their government and for their constituents.
What will be most interesting to see is whether it will make a difference.
Note: Very late last Wednesday night (actually early Thursday morning), following the final meeting of the “accommodation review committee” that was looking into our local public school board’s plan to close Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School and send Grades 7 and 8 students from both school areas to the local high school, I posted a report about the magnificent stand the committee had taken against the board’s plan. I promised you a fuller report later on the group’s well-reasoned rationale on why both of its alternative proposals would make more sense and be better for local children than would the board’s plan. As it turns out, I can’t give you that report yet; the committee members have passed their recommendations on to the school board, which is supposed to post it on its website. As of this writing, it hasn’t yet. Which kind of makes you wonder what the holdup is. (But that’s just me being a bit cynical, I suppose.) Click here to get to the section of the board’s site where this information will, presumably, show up eventually.
If it doesn’t, yet another fuss needs to be kicked up.
Wow. Something dramatic and important happened tonight. It’s not – yet – a win in the battle to keep our local rural school open. But it’s a great step in the right direction.
Tonight was the final meeting of the Accommodation Review Committee set up by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board to consider the board administration’s plan to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to already-full Madoc Public School in “town,” and move students in Grades 7 and 8 from both those elementary schools’ areas over to Centre Hastings Secondary School.
I’ve reported at length on the two previous meetings of the committee, here and here. I dare say that no one in the small but dedicated group of onlookers who attend these sessions (and are not allowed to speak from our rather uncomfortable spots in the bleachers of the CHSS gym) was quite prepared for how this one ended.
I’m not going to give you every detail, because now that the meeting is over it is very late and it’s more important that I just get the news out. So here’s the short version:
The final thing the committee was given a chance to do by the board administrators, before it was disbanded at the conclusion of tonight’s session, was to recommend alternatives to the school board’s plan.
Were there alternatives? Yes there were.
The Madoc Township Public School representatives on the committee spoke first. Margaret Heard, Amy Beaton and Wendy Spence stood up together and began, in turn, to read.
Amy gave the preamble: there would be two recommended alternatives. Over to Margaret:
“Recommendation No. 1 is to keep Madoc Township Public School open as a K-to-8 (kindergarten-to-Grade-8) school,” she said, a little nervously but forcefully nonetheless.
She went on to explain the reasoning behind bringing Grades 7 and 8 back to MTPS, where those grades were taught from the school’s opening in 1961 until about 1970. She, Amy and Wendy explained a whole lot more besides, including the continuation of the recommendation, which was to consolidate space-challenged Madoc Public School and almost-half-empty Centre Hastings Secondary. I’ll give you lots more detail about all of this in my regular post next Monday. For now I’ll just say that the three women made a thorough, well-thought-out and compelling argument. I was proud and emotional as I listened – proud of their bravery in standing up to the board’s administration and saying something that the administrators almost certainly wouldn’t like; proud of the hard work and clear reasoning that had gone into their presentation; and proud of our local school and community, which bring out the best in people.
Here’s the conclusion of their presentation, from Amy – and the aftermath. I will remind you that we onlookers were supposed to be silent. We weren’t, as you’re about to hear:
Then there was another surprise. Amy and Wendy took their seats, but Margaret stayed standing and invited her school-council-chair counterparts Kari Kramp (Madoc Public School) and Diane Bolton (CHSS) to join her.
The three of them then presented an alternative proposal, Recommendation No. 2:
“The consolidation of Madoc Public School, Madoc Township Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School and seeking (Ontario) Ministry of Education funding and approval to build a new K-to-12 on a new site for (the school year starting) September 2021-22.”
And they went on to make a great case for why a new school housing all students in our area would be fair, fiscally sensible, and good for the students. Again, I won’t go into all the details tonight – I’ll get you that later. (I hope to get copies of the full text of the two recommendations to share with you.)
The whole effect was of a group of committed parents and community representatives who had collaborated, done their homework, and were standing up, making some noise, and making their case.
There’s a long road still ahead. The next step is a public meeting at CHSS to be held Wednesday, March 22, 6:30 p.m. I hope that meeting will be packed to the rafters with members of the public, and that the entire community will have its say, forcefully. Then there are more school-board meetings, some of which also allow for presentations from the public. The final vote is to take place June 19.
We are a long way from being assured of victory for our precious rural school. It will take a lot of work and organization – and, yes, noise – from a lot of people to persuade our elected school trustees to vote against the recommendation of the board’s powerful administration.
But tonight was a very, very good start.
Robin Hutcheon is a mother of four school-age kids, a lifelong resident of the pretty village of Tamworth, Ont. – and, now, an activist in the fight to preserve Ontario’s rural schools, like Madoc Township Public School. Yesterday I called her up with a view to learning how that fight is going in her neck of the woods (not very many miles east of us here in Queensborough and Madoc Township), and perhaps sharing experiences and ideas.
My call came three days after the most recent gathering of our own public school board‘s “accommodation review committee” – the group of local residents tasked with considering the board’s plan to close Madoc Township Public School, send its kindergarten-to-Grade 6 students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and moving students in Grades 7 and 8 from both elementary schools’ catchment areas to the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary in Madoc. For onlookers like me, whom the school board allows to attend and watch the committee meetings but not to comment or otherwise participate, that meeting was an exercise in frustration. I suspect the members of the committee felt the same way.
Robin doesn’t mince words when she talks about the so-called “accommodation-review process,” which is a fancy bureaucratic way of saying “school-closing process.”
“You can’t rely on the process” if you hope to save a rural school, she told me:
“The process is set up for you to fail. It’s set up to close schools quickly and efficiently.”
And with that, she pretty much put a finger on how I was feeling as I drove home late last Thursday night after the meeting at CHSS.
That meeting was a bit of an exercise in good intentions gone bad. At the previous accommodation-committee meeting – which was planned by board administration as the first of only two sessions, later extended to three at the committee members’ request – the team of parents, community members and school representatives from Madoc Township Public School had asked that at future meetings the reps from all three schools be allowed to sit and work together, rather than being separated into three tables for the three schools. This seemed like a great, collaborative idea at the time, and I celebrated it when I wrote about that meeting here.
But it was better in theory than practice, as it turned out. Last Thursday night, after an hour-long session at which two principals, representing schools in Belleville where Grades 7 and 8 students are now (as of this past year) housed in the nearby high school, sang the unbounded praises of how utterly perfectly that setup has worked (oh dear – I’m afraid I sound cynical…), the members of the committee, now all sitting around one very big table, were asked to divide into groups and talk some more about the plan that’s on the table for our local schools. The problem with this was that you had people from three different schools with three not-quite-the-same sets of concerns, and the upshot was questions and comments for the school-board representatives that were a little (not to put too fine a point on it, and I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings here, because I don’t mean or want to) – lame. The balls that were lobbed were absolute softballs, easy for the board representatives – whose job is to get this plan through, boom, period – to hit out of the park.
Basically it turned into a session about how best to make the board’s plan work, as opposed to what us defenders of Madoc Township Public School were hoping for – that is, a serious challenge to the logic (if you can call it that) behind closing our top-rated local school and, in doing so, cutting out a big chunk of the heart and soul of the Madoc Township and area community.
And that’s the problem Robin Hutcheon so succinctly identified. The process the accommodation committee is following is the school board’s process. The odds are completely stacked against the defenders of MTPS, of which I proudly count myself one. The board’s administrators do not want us to win, because that would make their lives more difficult; they would have to come up with another way to meet the requirements of the provincial government school-funding formula, which is widely seen as unfair to rural Ontario and is the reason there are school-closing fights going on all over the province.
So what can we do – those of us who want to see our school and our community preserved?
Well, my own view is that we should start by talking to Robin Hutcheon and other people like her who are fighting the same battle in different parts of rural Ontario. Which is why I called her up last night.
Our half-hour-long conversation left me with a number of questions that I realized I’d like to see answered by our own school board:
- Why is there a rush for the board to decide this coming June on the plan to close MTPS and make the other school changes? I learned that in Robin’s area – Stone Mills Township, in Lennox and Addington County – the Kingston-based Limestone District School Board is proposing to close all five schools, which is dreadful – but not until 2018 or later. So, bad as it is that Stone Mills might lose all its schools – if that board can hold off until 2018 or later, why is our board racing to get it done by mid-2017?
- Shouldn’t we have up-to-date information about the renovation needs of the local schools before the board makes its decision? In Stone Mills, the group Robin chairs called Rural Schools Matter (check out its Facebook page here) is fighting to find out how much the Limestone board has spent in recent renovations at Yarker Public School, the first on the list for closure. The board has refused to provide that information. A freedom-of-information request by the closure opponents resulted in the board saying it would only provide the statistics if the group coughed up well over $100,000 in costs. That is nuts! (Rural Schools Matter is fighting this, as you can imagine.) But meanwhile, officials from our own board at last week’s meeting told us that information on our local schools’ renovation needs is five years old and is due to be updated in the 2017-18 school year. But wait – isn’t that the year the board proposes to close Madoc Township Public School? Does that picture make sense? Could the closure not at least be put on hold until we have current information?
- Can this deadline be met? What are the chances that, if our board decides on June 19 – as it is scheduled to do – to go ahead with its plan, it will be able to get all the renovations needed at Madoc Public School and CHSS done in time for the start of the school year in September? Given the need for architectural plans, building permits, inspections, etc. – my guess would be: slim. I sure would like to hear the board administration’s plan for how it will accomplish this feat.
I have lots of other questions – as, I know, do other defenders of our school – but for now I’ll leave it at that. Really the overarching question is why this decision is being made in such great haste.
But meantime: strength in numbers, people; strength in numbers. That’s what Robin Hutcheon is talking about. Her group has taken the battle well outside the school-board-controlled process, holding public-information and rallying sessions in the various Stone Mills communities affected (Enterprise, Centreville, Yarker, Tamworth and Newburgh), demonstrating outside school-board meetings (the next demonstration is Wednesday, March 8, between 5 and 6 p.m., at the board’s headquarters at 220 Portsmouth Ave. in Kingston), holding fundraisers for the cause (a dance and silent auction this past weekend), and just generally getting the wider community to sit up and take notice of this issue that affects all of us in rural communities, whether we have kids at school or not.
We need to get the attention of the people who can make a difference:
- The elected trustees on the school board, who are supposed to answer to us, the voters and taxpayers – not to school board administration.
- The movers and shakers in our local communities: councillors, businesspeople, people with influence.
- Ordinary people. Our neighbours. The voters and taxpayers and sustainers of our communities.
- The provincial government. (Yes, the current Liberal government. A theoretical future government formed by another party can’t help us right now.) As a letter that Robin’s group is urging Stone Mills people to send to Premier Kathleen Wynne says, in part:
“The very real enemy of rural Ontario, which according to Statistics Canada occupies 99 per cent of Ontario, lies in the implementation of flawed funding models by the Ministry of Education. These strategies, in their most simplistic interpretation, essentially provide funding to boards for new schools but not equal funding for improving existing schools. This is resulting in what can only be described as a direct affront on rural life in the province of Ontario as community after community faces the closing of their local schools by district school boards struggling with the constraints imposed by these funding formulae.
“You must impose a moratorium on rural school closures in the Province of Ontario and address the problems inherent in the funding models in order to undo what amounts to a declaration of war on the Ontarian rural way of life.”
We need to mobilize, work together, and make noise.
“You have to be forceful,” says Robin Hutcheon. “You have to question everything.”
And the difference between a hope of victory and certain defeat, in her view?
“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”
The third and final meeting of the accommodation review committee for Madoc Township Public, Madoc Public, and Centre Hastings Secondary schools takes place this Wednesday, March 1, in the gym at CHSS, at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public are welcome to attend but may not speak. I have found that watching the proceedings is quite instructive.
But making noise? Not there. Our noise, if we are to make it, will have to come in other ways, in other places, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Just think: What would Robin do?
Today I want to tell you Isaac’s story.
Isaac, who is 11 years old (“12 in June,” he proudly announces), and his family moved to our area – Madoc Township, to be precise – just over a year ago. They moved for one reason: because Isaac was having some difficulties at the large public school he attended in the city of Belleville.
‘He was falling through the cracks,” says his mum, Eliza.
When you meet Isaac – as I did one evening this past week – you can tell right away that he is a smart boy. He’s personable, well-spoken, polite and funny. He and his little brother, Samuel, make a very handsome pair, and I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Eliza’s very proud to be their mum. I know I would be if I were her.
Isaac was matter-of-fact when explaining to me why he was having some learning difficulties. “I have trouble,” he said, “getting stuff from here” (pointing at his head) “to here” (pointing to the ends of his fingers, where the finished work comes out). So math, reading and writing are hard for him. I guess you’d call it a mild learning disability – and in his big public school in the city, that was the problem: he needed extra help, but his difficulties were not severe enough for the resources and help that he needed to be directed his way. Hence, “falling through the cracks.” He was “not being challenged to get ahead,” Eliza added. In his large urban school, Isaac was three grade levels behind where he should have been in math and reading.
But then things turned around, thanks to a perceptive teacher, a family willing to make a change, and the wonderful staff and environment at Madoc Township Public School.
A teacher at Isaac’s Belleville school had once taught at Madoc Township PS. She also knew that Eliza owned a property in this area. And she suggested that our school – with its small classes and rural setting – might be a better fit for him. The family took her advice and, last January, moved to north of 7.
The effect of that move on Isaac is amazing. He’s now working at his own grade level in all subjects.
“Wow,” I said when he and his mum told me this. “And this happened in just one year?”
“It happened,” Eliza replied, “in a matter of months.”
Isaac was three grade levels down in reading and math when he joined the Grade 5 class at Madoc Township Public School in January 2016. By the time the school year ended this past June, he was working at a Grade 5 level in everything.
“Wow,” I said again.
What did it?
Well, one, a great teacher: Anna Henderson. She worked hard with Isaac, and pushed him to do his best. “She was very strict,” said Isaac, not looking remotely bothered by that fact. “And she got results,” added his mum.
“Those months felt like years!” Isaac tried again. But the grin on his face belied the hardship he was supposedly complaining about. (You’ll recall that he is 11, going on 12.) Yes, he’d had to work hard, and do extra work at home. But you can tell from the way he talks about it that he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish, and that he knows the extra work was worth it.
I was delighted when they told me that the teacher who’d done so much for him was Anna Henderson. Delighted for two reasons: one, because I’ve known Anna – formerly Anna McKinnon – since she was about the age of Isaac’s younger brother, Samuel, who’s in senior kindergarten at Madoc Township Public School. I remember playing Mother, May I? in the yard of the McKinnon home with Anna and her brother and sister many years ago when I was a kid growing up here in Queensborough.
The other reason I was delighted is that it was proof that the tradition of teaching excellence at Madoc Township Public School, about which I’ve written before, carries on to this day. Anna, like me, had classes at MTPS with amazing teachers like Monica Tobin and Gayle Ketcheson and Anna Carman and Sadie Miller and Vera Burnside and Irene Reid and Evelyn Boyle and the late and truly great principal Florence McCoy. Why, here they are!
These teachers were often strict. They demanded that we try to do our best. They challenged us. They helped us. They created a tradition and standard of learning excellence that is doubtless the reason that Madoc Township Public School placed first among all elementary schools in Hastings and Prince Edward counties in a recent survey of students’ reading, writing and math skills.
Now, this is the point at which I should probably tell you, if you don’t already know, that the local public school board is proposing to close Madoc Township Public School this coming June. If this sounds like a bad idea to you, let me assure you that you’re not alone. (Click on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the lower right side of Meanwhile, at the Manse’s home page to read all my previous posts about what’s going on. And please also join the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page to stay abreast of developments and support the fight the keep the school open.)
This proposal by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board was what prompted me to ask Eliza if I could sit down with her and Isaac and talk to them about their experience with Madoc Township Public School. Eliza had told me a little of Isaac’s story at a recent meeting of the committee charged with studying the closure proposal. “Gracious!” I said in response. “You’re the poster family for why this school needs to stay open!”
So there we were at the Madoc Tim Horton’s last Thursday evening, Isaac and Eliza patiently answering my questions while little Samuel squirmed a bit, being understandably rather more interested in moving on to supper.
The boys and I were sitting chatting as Eliza ordered them a drink and a cookie to tide them over till that delayed (because of me) supper. “They’re saying they’re going to close our school,” Isaac told me. He went on to explain the board’s plan as succinctly as I could: move the MTPS students into Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and move all Grades 7 and 8 students from both elementary-school areas into the high school in Madoc.
“Are the kids at school talking about this?” I asked him.
“A lot,” he replied forcefully. “I don’t want them to take away that school.”
Since Isaac is now in the final months of Grade 6, he’ll be in the high school come September if the board’s proposal goes through. I asked him how he feels about that. He didn’t hesitate a second:
He went on: “I don’t want to go to the high school. This school’s too good. I wish it went all the way up to Grade 8.”
Aha! Like I said: smart boy. A lot of people around here are wishing exactly the same thing, and feel it is the best course for the school board to take. Returning Madoc Township Public School to its roots as a kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school would mean full use of its space (a concern for the board because of enrolment issues), not to mention two more years of education for local children in a healthy rural setting with unmatched outdoor and playground facilities.
Those playground facilities also came up when I was talking to Isaac and Eliza. Having lots of space to run around in is good, Isaac said, because “I’m a non-stop runner.” He also likes the fact that, unlike at his old school, the kids are not separated by grade level at recess; kids in all the grades can hang out and play together. He has lots of friends, he happily reported.
His mother singled out another important factor in Isaac’s success at Madoc Township Public School: Kim Foley, the school’s resource person to help kids with special learning needs. Here’s something interesting: like Anna Henderson, Kim’s from a family with deep roots in Madoc Township and at Madoc Township Public School. Her husband, like his father before him, owns the bus line that gets so many of its kids to school every day, and the Foley homestead is just down the road from MTPS. Similarly, Anna’s family, the McKinnons, were among the first farmers in Madoc Township back in the 19th century, and their handsome farm is just a couple of miles from the school.
Those long and strong connections with the surrounding community are yet another thing that show the importance of Madoc Township Public School to our area.
You might also be interested to know that Isaac’s mum – who is, of all the cool things, a professional stonemason by trade – is planning to start a large-scale maple-syrup business on the 200-acre property she owns here. That business will mean local jobs, and will bring in tourists. It’ll be an economic boost in a rural township that could use one. So here too is a way in which Madoc Township Public School’s presence is helping the wider community.
Let’s review the other reasons: Community roots. Good facilities. An outstanding outdoor play and exploration area. Teachers and other staff who help students attain their full potential, and who are able, thanks to the school’s modest scale, to ensure that no one “falls through the cracks.” Kids who all (thanks again to the school’s modest size) know each other and play together. A #1 ranking in student results. Those are the things that make a great rural school – and attract people to come to the area and increase its potential.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Just ask Isaac.
I came away from last week’s public meeting about the future of Madoc Township Public School feeling a mix of anxiety and pride. The anxiety was over whether our community will be successful in keeping this splendid rural school open. The pride was in the thoughtful and clear-headed way in which members of the community asked their questions and made their case for why it should be kept open.
In case you’re new to this issue, the background is all contained in my recent posts here and here and here and here and here. The one-sentence version: the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board is proposing to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and send the Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas, who currently are at Madoc Public, to Centre Hastings Secondary School, also in the village of Madoc. The change, which would take effect starting this coming school year (i.e. in September 2017), is proposed by the board because enrolment at CHSS and, to a lesser extent, Madoc Township Public School, is below the schools’ capacity and because (according to the board) maintenance and renovation requirements for the schools are higher “than the average for the system.”
The board’s process for deciding on whether to follow through with this proposal is to first set up what’s called an “accommodation review committee,” consisting of school and community representatives as well as the board’s regional superintendent of education. This committee’s job is to be the liaison between the community and the school board, and to provide the board’s elected trustees and administrators (unelected employees) with information, feedback and possible alternate courses of action, before the trustees make their final decision this coming June. (If you think that’s a tight timeline for such an important decision that affects so many people, notably children – you’re not alone.)
The committee for our three local schools having been duly formed, the first meeting for the public as a whole was held last week in the gym at CHSS. Turnout was good, though it would probably have been better had the meeting not been rescheduled by a day because of freezing rain, and had the weather not been bad on both the originally scheduled date and the new one.
The evening began with an hour-long presentation by board officials on the accommodation process – the background, the information about the schools that the board is working with, the timeline for the process, and so on. Doubtless this is a necessary step, though at one point I leaned over to my neighbour in the audience to wonder in a whisper whether they were trying to bore us into a catatonic state. All the information presented in the PowertPoint was already in everyone’s hands in the form of printouts that the board folks thoughtfully made available, so we basically went through it all twice. However, as a teacher I well know that you can’t present information too often if you want it to sink in, so I definitely am cutting the board people some slack on that point.
Then the floor was opened to questions, and that, of course, was the interesting part. There were questions about:
- The accuracy of information provided in the board’s profiles of the three schools. Rooms in the high school that are no longer classrooms were listed as such, one person pointed out; errors like that would skew the data on how much space in the school is underused. One parent perceptively pointed out that the board gave two different figures in two different places for capacity and usage at Madoc Township Public School. In one document, capacity was listed as 184 students, with an actual enrolment of 121, which translated to usage of 66 per cent. In another document, the enrolment of 121 stood but capacity was listed as 161, which gives a significantly higher usage rate of 75 per cent. Oddly, she was told that the 66-per-cent figure was the correct one; I say “oddly,” because according to the documents, the 161-capacity, 75-per-cent-usage figure was more recent than the other one. I think that’s one mystery for the accommodation committee to get to the bottom of.
- Whether the needs of the children had been considered, or was the board’s recommendation only about money. Noting the concern that many people have about “factory farms” and their impact on rural communities, the agriculture system and our food supply, one questioner suggested that recommendations like the one the board is considering are the educational equivalent: “factory schools.” Another, the mother of a child who’s in Grade 7 in the autism program at Madoc Public School, was almost in tears as she told the room that her son is not ready to be moved into a high-school environment as soon as this coming September. Another mum talked about her young children’s fearful questions to her about whether they’ll be riding the school bus with the big kids from high school.
- The advisability of closing a school – Madoc Township Public – with extraordinary playground facilities: 5½ acres, according to one questioner, closer to seven acres according to the board’s own documentation (compared to a little less than 2½ acres at Madoc Public School). Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager put it simply but well in his question from the floor: “There is room to play at Madoc Township Public School. Has that been taken into consideration?” Or, to quote a boy who bravely stepped up to the mike and said he is going into Grade 7 next year: “What will we do to go outside?” (Loud applause from the crowd to that, as to many of the questions asked at the meeting.)
- What about those renovations? One person asked two good questions on this topic: First, why does the board documentation suggest that all listed renovations ($7 million at the high school, $2.3 million at Madoc Public and $2.9 million at Madoc Township) need to be done more or less right now? Surely, she suggested, the work can and would be done in stages over a period of several years? And second: Has the board consulted with contractors to find out how accurate its cost estimates for the renovations are?
Now, at this point you might be wondering what kind of answers were given to these excellent questions. In fact, there were no answers. The audience was told that all the questions and concerns were being recorded, and that the issues raised would be for the accommodation committee to consider and work through. (If you think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a group of community volunteers – once again, you’re not alone.)
Okay, on to more of the questions from the floor:
- How do we contact members of the accommodation committee? This one actually got an answer: that there’ll be an email address for the committee on the board’s website. Speaking personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I don’t think queries should have to go through the school board’s email system. Also: I can’t as yet find that email address, though there is a listing of the committee members (without contact information) here.
- Who will make the final decision on what happens to the schools? Again, an answer: The elected trustees who sit on the board. Followup question #1: How many trustees are there? Answer: Ten. Followup question #2: How many of them are here tonight? Answer: Two. (Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray, who represent central Hastings County and southeast Hastings County respectively.) Followup question #3: So 80 per cent of the people who will be making the final decision aren’t here tonight? No answer needed. It was a rhetorical question, and a perfectly correct observation.
- What will happen down the road – or, as one questioner put it: “Where’s the growth going to go?” Closing Madoc Township Public School and moving the students to Madoc Public will completely fill that latter school up, and its attached land is small. Suppose, said the man at the mike, that even one good-sized company opens up in the area. Where would the children of its employees go to school? As I think about it, it strikes me that the smart subtext of that question is this: the board is betting on the failure of our rural area to attract growth and development, not its success. It’s betting on fewer people living here, not new people coming in. That, it seems to me, is unhelpful and unsupportive, and a big mistake.
Which leads me to some wise words that Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (the municipality that takes in Madoc village), offered up from the floor. He told the board representatives that he recognizes the problems they’re facing (provincial-government funding rules for schools, declining enrolment, etc.), and sympathetically added that he wouldn’t relish their job. But, he said, closing a community’s school is like pulling out any other critical facility, such as an arena.
It’s about a sense of community, he said, urging the board: “Please, please consider the social and economic benefits of that particular school when you’re making those decisions.”
And then, in a statement that I feel is utterly true and absolutely critical, he said: “Rural Ontario is different.” We’re not a city; urban issues are not the same as our issues. Here where we live, Mayor Deline said, “the sense of community is tremendous.” And schools are a big part of that.
Another person speaking from the floor echoed that sentiment, pointing out that most people who live in rural areas have chosen to do so because they appreciate rural life – including their children being able to go to rural schools. While I don’t have kids, I know I chose to live in this rural area because of the quality of life here. We may not have all the amenities of a city – a nearby hospital, a big choice of shops – but for us that’s more than outweighed by space, and beauty, and friendly neighbours who help you out when you need it, and – to quote Reeve Sager again – room for our kids to play.
Rural Ontario is different, as Mayor Deline said. It is time for the provincial government to do a better job of recognizing that, and to work with its subordinate agencies – like school boards – to support and enrich rural life. Not shut it down.
Which is why I think we all need to get involved here, and get our elected representatives involved. Our local MPP, Todd Smith, is in the Conservative opposition as opposed to the governing Liberals, but he can ask the government (notably the minister of education) some pointed questions about support for rural schools. Why not contact him? His Belleville constituency office’s number is 613-962-1144 (toll-free 1-877-536-6248); his Queen’s Park office is 416-325-2702; and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, when the provincial riding boundaries change next year to match up with recent federal-riding changes, our MPP may well be the Conservative nominee for the new riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, none other than our longtime former MP, Darryl Kramp – a Madoc resident who is widely known and respected throughout this area. Why not contact him (here is his Twitter) and ask if he can help?
And while we’re at it (and even though education is a provincial, not a federal, matter), why not contact the guy who defeated Mr. Kramp in the last federal election, Liberal MP Mike Bossio? He is from Madoc, went to school there – and, what is probably more important, is hugely supportive of rural issues. He is, in fact, chair of the federal government’s National Rural Caucus, and in that role has been making considerable noise over the past year on the need to support rural communities. Why not ask if he can help? You can find Mr. Bossio’s contact information here.
Then there are the trustees on the school board, not just the two who came out to last week’s meeting – Bonnie Danes (who, to her great credit, voted against the “accommodation” process being started for our area) and Justin Bray – but the other eight, or 80 per cent, who didn’t come. You can find their names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses here. They are your elected representatives, and their mandate is to bring forward your issues. Tell them what those issues and concerns are!
There are also our local municipal councillors. It was great to see Reeve Sager and Mayor Deline speaking out at the meeting, but it would even better to see their respective councils pulling out all the stops in standing up for their local schools and our rural way of life. You can find the members of Madoc Township council here and Centre Hastings council here. Please let them know how you feel.
Finally, you might request membership (I doubt that you’ll be turned down) in the new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School, where lots of useful information is being shared. It was there, for instance, that I learned that under provincial rules about planned school closings (you can read the full document here), the board has an obligation to consult with the affected municipalities and other community partners about issues around underused school space – and presumably how that underused space might be used by said community partners. The person who posted the information asked: Has that consultation happened? A very good question. At the public meeting last week, we were given no indication that it had.
Also on that Facebook page, you’ll find a link to this interesting article from yesterday’s Toronto Star on provincewide concerns not only about rural schools being threatened with closures, but about the process surrounding those closures. It is good to know that we aren’t alone; the more pressure that all of us rural people can put on the government, the more chance there is that changes will be made and that rural schools – and by extension rural communities – will be given support rather than a governmental kick in the shins.
So what’s next? Well, first we should all contact the people I’ve mentioned, and anyone else you can think of who might be able to help. Oh, gracious – how could I have forgotten? Contact Ontario’s education minister! Her name is Mitzie Hunter, and her contact information is here. And while you’re at it, how about Ontario’s minister of rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who’s from nearby Peterborough? Here is his contact information. And the minister of municipal affairs, Bill Mauro, whose ministry’s website promises that it is “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies, abundant greenspace and a high quality of life.” Bingo! Mr. Mauro’s contact information is here.
After that: attend meetings. The schedule the board has set up calls for there to be a meeting of the Madoc-area accommodation committee on Thursday, Feb. 9. I have inquired and have been told that a time and place for it have not yet been set, so stay tuned; that information will probably be provided through the three schools’ social-media (Facebook and Twitter) feeds, as well as under the “Upcoming Events” and/or “News Stand” sections of the school board’s website. There’s a followup meeting for the committee on Wednesday, March 1, but in between there are likely to be more informal school-by-school meetings – and at those, you will probably be allowed to speak, which we were informed at last week’s public meeting we could not do at the official committee meetings. (Though we are welcome to attend and be silent.)
On Wednesday, March 22, the board will hold the second of its two scheduled public meetings on the issue of changes to our three local schools. After that, it’s all about various board and committee meetings (you can see the full schedule here), and then the final decision at a board meeting Monday, June 19. Which is really not very far away.
The timeline is tight; the stakes are high; we probably have tough odds against us. But I feel sure that if we all do our part – by telling our elected representatives at every level how we (the people who elect them) feel, and by working together to come up with creative and innovative solutions to help the school board solve the tough problems it is up against – we have a really good shot. And in doing so, we can help others in rural Ontario who are facing the same problems and the same threat to their way of life.
I think this is a battle worth fighting. And that, with a lot of hard work, we can win.