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.

The community speaks up

Madoc Township Public School green space poster

See that tiny dime taped to the middle of the big sheet of green bristol board? That represents the amount of space that children at Madoc Public School have to play compared to those at Madoc Township Public School; the latter students have all that green. Community member Randy Gray came up with this brilliant and powerful representation of what MTPS kids will be facing if their school is closed and they’re moved to the town school.

If you’ve been closely following the story of how our excellent and beloved local elementary school is being threatened with closure, you probably have a good sense of how things went at the public meeting held to discuss the issue last Wednesday. Perhaps you were one of the people who packed the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc to listen and/or speak out. If you weren’t, you may well have heard the report that was on one local radio news outlet; and you can expect to see stories about the meeting in the local weekly newspapers when they arrive in the mailbox a little later this week.

But the best way to learn about what happened at the meeting is to go to (and join, if you haven’t already) the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook group. There you’ll find (thanks to the volunteers who undertook this project) a Facebook Live streaming of the full meeting, as well as individual videos of the individual speakers. Talk about great coverage!

Because you can see it all in real time, I don’t think I need to go into a lot of detail about what was said at the meeting. I would, however, like to highlight for you a few things that were highlights for me as I sat and took it all in.

First I’d like to offer sincere thanks to the seven trustees from the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board who came out to the meeting. These elected officials have to attend a lot of meetings, and they give up many afternoons and evenings and travel many miles to do so. It’s very much appreciated that they came to CHSS on Wednesday, some travelling from as far away as Tyendinaga and the Bancroft area. One other trustee sent her regrets because she had to attend a similar meeting that night in her own part of Prince Edward County. So that leaves only two of the total 10 trustees who make up the board – and who hold the fate of Madoc Township Public School and the two schools in the village of Madoc in their hands – as a no-show. That’s impressive! And like I said, very much appreciated. So thank you to chair Lucille Kyle and trustees Bonnie Danes, Justin Bray, Mike Brant, Dave Patterson, Mary Hall and Jim Williams.

The main thrust of all the presentations given by members of the public was the two alternative recommendations that have been forward by community volunteers to counter the plan put forward by board administrators. These recommendations are widely seen as preferable to the administrators’ plan. Let’s quickly review, for those who may need a refresher:

The board administration has recommended closing Madoc Township Public School at the end of the current school year, sending all its students to Madoc Public School in the village, and sending the students in Grades 7 and 8 from both elementary schools’ areas to a renovated section of the high school.

The alternative proposals are:

  1. Keep Madoc Township Public School open and bring back its Grade 7 and 8 students. The school went up to Grade 8 when it was built in 1961, but in the early 1970s students in the two higher grades were moved to Madoc Public School. There’s no compelling reason for them to be there, and bringing them back to MTPS will mean our beautiful country school will be fully used. No empty space to maintain, in other words. This recommendation calls for the consolidation of Madoc Public School and CHSS.
  2. Build a new school to house all students, from kindergarten through Grade 12, and to replace all three existing schools. Because this would take time, this would give the existing schools a reprieve of two or three years – at the end of which there would be a state-of-the-art, fully accessible and environmentally friendly facility.

One of the major arguments for keeping MTPS open, cited by speaker after speaker, was the extensive playground and outdoor spaces that it offers students. The school is surrounded by more than five acres of land where children can run, play and learn about the natural world around them. How many schools can boast that?

The space at MTPS was dramatically illustrated by a simple but powerful visual aid brought to the meeting by community member Randy Gray. It was a big piece of green bristol board representing the green space at MTPS. In the centre was a taped a dime – representing the tiny play space at Madoc Public School. Randy had ensured the dimensions were accurate (“Hey, I know how to carry the one,” he joked to me after the meeting as I took his photo. “I went to Madoc Township Public School!”), and it was very, very impressive.

http://www.hpedsb.on.ca/ec/directorsOffice/arc/documents/RequestforDelegationStudentEnrolment_SchoolCapacityCommittee2.pdf

This photo gives you some idea of the vast size of the grounds at Madoc Township Public School. It’s taken from close to the far end of the open fields and playgrounds to the rear of the school, looking toward the school building. The track and everything you see in front of you is where kids can run and play. Photo by Denise Gray

What else was talked about ?

  • Inaccuracies in the information presented to the public and the trustees about renovation needs (and costs) at the three schools. Major work (a roof, new windows) that has already been done and paid for at MTPS was still showing as a future need and a future expense, and thus a negative in considering the building’s future.
  • The crowded-to-the-point-of-dangerous situation in the areas where buses load and unload students at Madoc Public School. Randy Rowe, a school-bus driver and member of Madoc Township council, told the crowd:

    The Madoc schools are already over-congested with parents picking up and dropping off students. Vehicles parked in front of MPS are daily backing out into live lanes of traffic while children and parents are zig-zagging through them to get to their cars. Adding 120 more students [from MTPS] and their families will contribute to an already unsafe situation.

  • Other issues raised by Rowe:
    • Because of the lack of space for bus loading zones at the two schools, three buses in the afternoon have to park in the smoking area outside the high school. Any students riding these buses, he said

      have to pass through the smoking area and then sit until departure time overlooking this daily influence and inhaling cigarette fumes.

    • Adding 120 students to the buses travelling to MPS and CHSS will cause overcrowded buses:

      I know from my experience that an overcrowded bus creates dynamic situations. As we max out the seating capacities on buses it creates quarrelling, fighting and conflicts and becomes unsafe, since the only adult on the bus, the driver, is responsible for so many children.

  • Bruce Buttar, the area representative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, spoke about how the departure of young people and families, when there are no services such as schools for them, is hurting rural Ontario. The OFA and its partners are working hard to reverse this trend and revitalize rural areas, he said – “but we need a solid school system.” Buttar added that in rural areas, schools are community hubs as well as places for kids to learn; when they are closed, they’re closed for the entire community. He urged the trustees and the board administrators to dare to think differently, to support rural schools and rural life. Hear, hear!
  • One of the most impressive speeches was a brief one from Leslie Chapman, a woman whose family had, back in the 19th century, given the land on which Madoc Township Public School now sits as a place for its predecessor, the small Burris School (SS#9, Madoc Township). She implored the trustees to think about “the rich, rich heritage this school has.” Bravo!
  • Amy Beaton, the parent of a student at MTPS, noted that the board’s decision on our schools is scheduled for June 19, when there are only eight school days left. Eight days, she suggested with emotion evident in her voice, is not nearly enough for the students to say goodbye to their school community. Spending those final days as their much-loved place is being filled with moving boxes and being shut down  “is not a very memorable last few days at school,” she said. And what about honouring the legacy of MTPS? Former students, she noted, would surely want to come, some from afar, and take part in that; how could it be properly done in eight days?
  • Carrie Smith, a Madoc Township councillor, spoke very eloquently and made so many good points. I urge you to watch the video, but here’s an excerpt:

    The closing of our only school will affect who chooses to move into our township, as [the local school is] often a deciding factor for many families. I strongly feel that this will be a deterrent to families … We are becoming a disjointed society with little to tie us to our roots. Madoc Township Public School has provided such a strong sense of community for so many years – and I just can’t help but think it’s the time that we spent together outside in the amazing green space just being kids for a moment longer in time. Our lives are ever-increasingly becoming more and more hectic, and this school is a way for parents to hold on to a rural way of life.”

    Full house at CHSS

    A full house in the gym at CHSS listens a Madoc Township Councillor Carrie Smith (centre, standing, wearing white) makes a plea for our rural school and rural way of life.

  • And there was more:
    • A letter from Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (which encompasses the village of Madoc) to say that a big parcel of fully serviced land within the community is readily available as a location for a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school.
    • Madoc parent Kari Kramp pointing out that the estimated cost for a new school is less than half the estimated cost of repairs needed at CHSS over the next 20 years: $21 million vs. $48 million. “There are better ways to spend $27 million,” she astutely observed.
    • Concerns about asbestos in all three existing school buildings, and whether it would be a risk if renovations to make space for the Grades 7 and 8 students are done at CHSS.
    • Concerns about whether there will be the necessary facilities and programs at the high school for students with autism and other special needs.
    • A strong plea for keeping a school where children can take advantage of all the benefits of unstructured outdoor play with other kids – which leads to social development, healthy relationships and leadership skills. “What are the benefits of reducing kids’ green space?” was the question asked to the school-board representatives. No answer was offered.

Both the senior administrators and some of the trustees have said that the decision on our local schools is not a done deal – that other options can be considered. The next step in that consideration process is a meeting of the board’s student enrolment/school capacity meeting on Monday, April 10 (3:30 p.m. at the board office, 156 Ann St., Belleville; open to the public). It is then that the trustees will receive the final report and recommendation from the senior administrators, though that report is to be posted on the board’s website a few days before the meeting.

On Wednesday, April 26, also at the board headquarters in Belleville, that same committee will hear delegations from the public about the final proposal. Anyone who wants to say something to the trustees will have to register as a delegation at least five business days in advance of the meeting. The registration form is on the board’s website; here is a direct link.

On Tuesday, May 23, the committee meets again to prepare a recommendation to the full board (the 10 trustees). Again, the meeting is public.

And the final vote by those trustees is to take place Monday, June 19.

I’ll be there. Judging by the impressive turnout last Wednesday, and the impassioned pleas to the trustees to do what’s best for our kids and our community, I expect a lot of you will be too.

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.

Things are about to get interesting at Queen’s Park

Queen's Park

Queen’s Park, where tomorrow a motion to stop the destructive rural school-closure process will be debated.

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.

The motion, addressed to Premier Kathleen Wynne by Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, reads as follows:

  • 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.

Jeff Leal

Jeff Leal, MPP for neighbouring Peterborough and Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. If you ask me, it’s his duty to stand up in tomorrow’s debate and defend – well, rural affairs, in the form of rural schools.

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.

“Keep Madoc Township Public School open as a K-to-8 school.”

Recommendation #1

Madoc Township Public School representatives (from left) Wendy Spence, Amy Beaton and Margaret Heard make a compelling case for MTPS to remain open.

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.

Us in the bleachers

There aren’t a lot of us who sit through these meetings, and the seating isn’t very comfortable – but we are dedicated.

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.

Recommendation #2

The chairs of the three local school councils – from left, Kari Kramp (Madoc Public School), Maragaret Heard (Madoc Township Public School) and Diane Bolton (Centre Hastings Secondary School) –speak as one. It was very powerful.

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.

“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”

robin-hutcheon-protests-school-closure

Robin Hutcheon and fellow activists demonstrate against the closure of rural schools outside a meeting of the Limestone District School Board in Kingston. (Photo from the Frontenac News, which has an article about the protest here.)

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.

Accommodation committee at one table

Members representing all three of our local schools who sit on the school board’s “accommodation review committee” carry on discussions at last week’s meeting in the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School. The rest of us sat in the bleachers and watched.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?