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.

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.

A community comes together for a cause: saving our schools

bob-sager-at-public-meeting

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

I came away from last week’s public meeting about the future of Madoc Township Public School feeling a mix of anxiety and pride. The anxiety was over whether our community will be successful in keeping this splendid rural school open. The pride was in the thoughtful and clear-headed way in which members of the community asked their questions and made their case for why it should be kept open.

In case you’re new to this issue, the background is all contained in my recent posts here and here and here and here and here. The one-sentence version: the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board is proposing to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and send the Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas, who currently are at Madoc Public, to Centre Hastings Secondary School, also in the village of Madoc. The change, which would take effect starting this coming school year (i.e. in September 2017), is proposed by the board because enrolment at CHSS and, to a lesser extent, Madoc Township Public School, is below the schools’ capacity and because (according to the board) maintenance and renovation requirements for the schools are higher “than the average for the system.”

The board’s process for deciding on whether to follow through with this proposal is to first set up what’s called an “accommodation review committee,” consisting of school and community representatives as well as the board’s regional superintendent of education. This committee’s job is to be the liaison between the community and the school board, and to provide the board’s elected trustees and administrators (unelected employees) with information, feedback and possible alternate courses of action, before the trustees make their final decision this coming June. (If you think that’s a tight timeline for such an important decision that affects so many people, notably children – you’re not alone.)

The committee for our three local schools having been duly formed, the first meeting for the public as a whole was held last week in the gym at CHSS. Turnout was good, though it would probably have been better had the meeting not been rescheduled by a day because of freezing rain, and had the weather not been bad on both the originally scheduled date and the new one.

The evening began with an hour-long presentation by board officials on the accommodation process – the background, the information about the schools that the board is working with, the timeline for the process, and so on. Doubtless this is a necessary step, though at one point I leaned over to my neighbour in the audience to wonder in a whisper whether they were trying to bore us into a catatonic state. All the information presented in the PowertPoint was already in everyone’s hands in the form of printouts that the board folks thoughtfully made available, so we basically went through it all twice. However, as a teacher I well know that you can’t present information too often if you want it to sink in, so I definitely am cutting the board people some slack on that point.

Then the floor was opened to questions, and that, of course, was the interesting part. There were questions about:

  • The accuracy of information provided in the board’s profiles of the three schools. Rooms in the high school that are no longer classrooms were listed as such, one person pointed out; errors like that would skew the data on how much space in the school is underused. One parent perceptively pointed out that the board gave two different figures in two different places for capacity and usage at Madoc Township Public School. In one document, capacity was listed as 184 students, with an actual enrolment of 121, which translated to usage of 66 per cent. In another document, the enrolment of 121 stood but capacity was listed as 161, which gives a significantly higher usage rate of 75 per cent. Oddly, she was told that the 66-per-cent figure was the correct one; I say “oddly,” because according to the documents, the 161-capacity, 75-per-cent-usage figure was more recent than the other one. I think that’s one mystery for the accommodation committee to get to the bottom of.
  • Whether the needs of the children had been considered, or was the board’s recommendation only about money. Noting the concern that many people have about “factory farms” and their impact on rural communities, the agriculture system and our food supply, one questioner suggested that recommendations like the one the board is considering are the educational equivalent: “factory schools.” Another, the mother of a child who’s in Grade 7 in the autism program at Madoc Public School, was almost in tears as she told the room that her son is not ready to be moved into a high-school environment as soon as this coming September. Another mum talked about her young children’s fearful questions to her about whether they’ll be riding the school bus with the big kids from high school.
  • The advisability of closing a school – Madoc Township Public – with extraordinary playground facilities: 5½ acres, according to one questioner, closer to seven acres according to the board’s own documentation (compared to a little less than 2½ acres at Madoc Public School). Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager put it simply but well in his question from the floor: “There is room to play at Madoc Township Public School. Has that been taken into consideration?” Or, to quote a boy who bravely stepped up to the mike and said he is going into Grade 7 next year: “What will we do to go outside?” (Loud applause from the crowd to that, as to many of the questions asked at the meeting.)
  • What about those renovations? One person asked two good questions on this topic: First, why does the board documentation suggest that all listed renovations ($7 million at the high school, $2.3 million at Madoc Public and $2.9 million at Madoc Township) need to be done more or less right now? Surely, she suggested, the work can and would be done in stages over a period of several years? And second: Has the board consulted with contractors to find out how accurate its cost estimates for the renovations are?

Now, at this point you might be wondering what kind of answers were given to these excellent questions. In fact, there were no answers. The audience was told that all the questions and concerns were being recorded, and that the issues raised would be for the accommodation committee to consider and work through. (If you think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a group of community volunteers – once again, you’re not alone.)

Okay, on to more of the questions from the floor:

  • How do we contact members of the accommodation committee? This one actually got an answer: that there’ll be an email address for the committee on the board’s website. Speaking personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I don’t think queries should have to go through the school board’s email system. Also: I can’t as yet find that email address, though there is a listing of the committee members (without contact information) here.
  • Who will make the final decision on what happens to the schools? Again, an answer: The elected trustees who sit on the board. Followup question #1: How many trustees are there? Answer: Ten. Followup question #2: How many of them are here tonight? Answer: Two. (Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray, who represent central Hastings County and southeast Hastings County respectively.) Followup question #3: So 80 per cent of the people who will be making the final decision aren’t here tonight? No answer needed. It was a rhetorical question, and a perfectly correct observation.
  • What will happen down the road – or, as one questioner put it: “Where’s the growth going to go?” Closing Madoc Township Public School and moving the students to Madoc Public will completely fill that latter school up, and its attached land is small. Suppose, said the man at the mike, that even one good-sized company opens up in the area. Where would the children of its employees go to school? As I think about it, it strikes me that the smart subtext of that question is this: the board is betting on the failure of our rural area to attract growth and development, not its success. It’s betting on fewer people living here, not new people coming in. That, it seems to me, is unhelpful and unsupportive, and a big mistake.
Tom Deline speaks at public meeting

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

Which leads me to some wise words that Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (the municipality that takes in Madoc village), offered up from the floor. He told the board representatives that he recognizes the problems they’re facing (provincial-government funding rules for schools, declining enrolment, etc.), and sympathetically added that he wouldn’t relish their job. But, he said, closing a community’s school is like pulling out any other critical facility, such as an arena.

It’s about a sense of community, he said, urging the board: “Please, please consider the social and economic benefits of that particular school when you’re making those decisions.”

And then, in a statement that I feel is utterly true and absolutely critical, he said: “Rural Ontario is different.” We’re not a city; urban issues are not the same as our issues. Here where we live, Mayor Deline said, “the sense of community is tremendous.” And schools are a big part of that.

Another person speaking from the floor echoed that sentiment, pointing out that most people who live in rural areas have chosen to do so because they appreciate rural life – including their children being able to go to rural schools. While I don’t have kids, I know I chose to live in this rural area because of the quality of life here. We may not have all the amenities of a city – a nearby hospital, a big choice of shops – but for us that’s more than outweighed by space, and beauty, and friendly neighbours who help you out when you need it, and – to quote Reeve Sager again – room for our kids to play.

Rural Ontario is different, as Mayor Deline said. It is time for the provincial government to do a better job of recognizing that, and to work with its subordinate agencies – like school boards – to support and enrich rural life. Not shut it down.

Which is why I think we all need to get involved here, and get our elected representatives involved. Our local MPP, Todd Smith, is in the Conservative opposition as opposed to the governing Liberals, but he can ask the government (notably the minister of education) some pointed questions about support for rural schools. Why not contact him? His Belleville constituency office’s number is 613-962-1144 (toll-free 1-877-536-6248); his Queen’s Park office is 416-325-2702; and his email is todd.smithco@pc.ola.org.

Meanwhile, when the provincial riding boundaries change next year to match up with recent federal-riding changes, our MPP may well be the Conservative nominee for the new riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, none other than our longtime former MP, Darryl Kramp – a Madoc resident who is widely known and respected throughout this area. Why not contact him (here is his Twitter) and ask if he can help?

And while we’re at it (and even though education is a provincial, not a federal, matter), why not contact the guy who defeated Mr. Kramp in the last federal election, Liberal MP Mike Bossio? He is from Madoc, went to school there – and, what is probably more important, is hugely supportive of rural issues. He is, in fact, chair of the federal government’s National Rural Caucus, and in that role has been making considerable noise over the past year on the need to support rural communities. Why not ask if he can help? You can find Mr. Bossio’s contact information here.

Then there are the trustees on the school board, not just the two who came out to last week’s meeting – Bonnie Danes (who, to her great credit, voted against the “accommodation” process being started for our area) and Justin Bray – but the other eight, or 80 per cent, who didn’t come. You can find their names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses here. They are your elected representatives, and their mandate is to bring forward your issues. Tell them what those issues and concerns are!

There are also our local municipal councillors. It was great to see Reeve Sager and Mayor Deline speaking out at the meeting, but it would even better to see their respective councils pulling out all the stops in standing up for their local schools and our rural way of life. You can find the members of Madoc Township council here and Centre Hastings council here. Please let them know how you feel.

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

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

Finally, you might request membership (I doubt that you’ll be turned down) in the new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School, where lots of useful information is being shared. It was there, for instance, that I learned that under provincial rules about planned school closings (you can read the full document here), the board has an obligation to consult with the affected municipalities and other community partners about issues around underused school space – and presumably how that underused space might be used by said community partners. The person who posted the information asked: Has that consultation happened? A very good question. At the public meeting last week, we were given no indication that it had.

Also on that Facebook page, you’ll find a link to this interesting article from yesterday’s Toronto Star on provincewide concerns not only about rural schools being threatened with closures, but about the process surrounding those closures. It is good to know that we aren’t alone; the more pressure that all of us rural people can put on the government, the more chance there is that changes will be made and that rural schools – and by extension rural communities – will be given support rather than a governmental kick in the shins.

So what’s next? Well, first we should all contact the people I’ve mentioned, and anyone else you can think of who might be able to help. Oh, gracious – how could I have forgotten? Contact Ontario’s education minister! Her name is Mitzie Hunter, and her contact information is here. And while you’re at it, how about Ontario’s minister of rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who’s from nearby Peterborough? Here is his contact information. And the minister of municipal affairs, Bill Mauro, whose ministry’s website promises that it is “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies, abundant greenspace and a high quality of life.” Bingo! Mr. Mauro’s contact information is here.

And last but not least: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Her contact information is here.

After that: attend meetings. The schedule the board has set up calls for there to be a meeting of the Madoc-area accommodation committee on Thursday, Feb. 9. I have inquired and have been told that a time and place for it have not yet been set, so stay tuned; that information will probably be provided through the three schools’ social-media (Facebook and Twitter) feeds, as well as under the “Upcoming Events” and/or “News Stand” sections of the school board’s website. There’s a followup meeting for the committee on Wednesday, March 1, but in between there are likely to be more informal school-by-school meetings – and at those, you will probably be allowed to speak, which we were informed at last week’s public meeting we could not do at the official committee meetings. (Though we are welcome to attend and be silent.)

On Wednesday, March 22, the board will hold the second of its two scheduled public meetings on the issue of changes to our three local schools. After that, it’s all about various board and committee meetings (you can see the full schedule here), and then the final decision at a board meeting Monday, June 19. Which is really not very far away.

The timeline is tight; the stakes are high; we probably have tough odds against us. But I feel sure that if we all do our part – by telling our elected representatives at every level how we (the people who elect them) feel, and by working together to come up with creative and innovative solutions to help the school board solve the tough problems it is up against – we have a really good shot. And in doing so, we can help others in rural Ontario who are facing the same problems and the same threat to their way of life.

I think this is a battle worth fighting. And that, with a lot of hard work, we can win.

A Canada Post puzzle, or: torn between two places

queensborough-on-the-map

Queensborough (starred in this Google map) is within a 15-minute drive of two larger centres: Madoc (centre left) and Tweed (lower right). Officially we are part of the Municipality of Tweed (or the Greater Tweed Area, the GTA, as some wags like to call it), but our connections – schools, shopping, and most especially postal service – are historically closer to Madoc. Click here to read an earlier post about whether “going to town” means Madoc or Tweed for us.

“You don’t need to use the RR number in your addresses any more,” the friendly clerk at the post office in Madoc told me a few months ago. Or actually – my memory for word-perfect conversations being wobbly at best, plus did I mention that this was several months ago? – what she might have said was, “You shouldn’t use the RR number in your addresses any more.”

Are you wondering what I’m talking about? If so, you surely don’t live in rural Canada, where RRs – the number of the rural route that your particular postal-delivery person follows – have been entrenched pretty much since there’s been postal delivery. For probably all of the past century, and more than the first decade of this one, rural addresses were “Katherine Sedgwick, RR#2 (or RR2 if you were feeling too rushed to include the number sign) Madoc, Ont.” And then in the early 1970s they added newfangled postal codes, which made lots of traditionalists hopping mad; you can read all about that here. So my mailing address back in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough was

Katherine Sedgwick
RR#2
Madoc, Ont.
K0K 2K0

RR#2 was the route based out of the Madoc post office that covered Queensborough and surrounding areas. RR#1 was the section of Madoc Township more or less due north of the village of Madoc, while RR#3 was the hamlet of Cooper and environs. I think there were a couple of other RRs for the areas south of Madoc as well.

When Raymond and I bought the Manse five years ago – Five years already! Wow! – and my focus returned to Queensborough after an absence of almost 40 years, I was vaguely aware that the RR number alone wouldn’t cut it any more, address-wise. Sometime during the 15 years I’d lived in Montreal, Ontario had decided that every address needed a street number, even if the street in question was a dusty country road. The main reason for this, as I understand it, was so that emergency responders could more easily find where they were going – and so were born what rural Ontarians call “911 numbers,” as opposed to “addresses.” This initiative also resulted in rural roads that had never before had names suddenly getting them. The road that the Manse was on, nameless back in my 1960s and ’70s childhood here, is now Bosley Road, named for one of the families that once lived on it. And the Manse’s number on Bosley Road – its 911 number – is 847.

Our mailbox

Our brand-new (in 2012) mailbox at 847 Bosley Rd., RR#2 Madoc.

So ever since Raymond and I got our mailbox in operation, the address I had been using for us was

Katherine Sedgwick
847 Bosley Rd.
RR#2
Madoc, Ont.
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But then the post-office clerk made that comment about not using RR numbers. Clearly this required further investigation.

It turns out that, just in the period when Raymond and I were still living and working in Montreal and visiting the Manse on weekends when we could, Canada Post was beginning the process of eliminating rural routes. You can read about that here and here, in pieces out of the Grande Prairie (Alta.) Daily Herald-Tribune and the more local Peterborough Examiner from late summer and fall 2012, a few months after we bought the Manse.

Now, I like to think I’m reasonably plugged into the news – being a journalist and all – but somehow or other I remained utterly oblivious to this development at Canada Post. I am pretty sure it’s because during the main period of its implementation I was still living in Montreal, where RRs are unknown and have zero impact on daily life.

But let’s move on to the present day – a few months after the clerk at the post office basically told me (in the nicest possible way) to get with the program. Here’s what I have done in response to that comment:

One: Most of the time, kept using RR#2 in my address. Because it’s the old-fashioned way, and I like old-fashioned things.

Two: When I’m rushed – like, when I’m trying to write many dozens of Christmas cards, as I was last month – dropped the RR#2 from my return address, knowing that not only would it still be correct, but Canada Post would probably like me better.

Three, and this is the big one (not to mention the point of this post): Begun to wonder and worry a bit about where Queensborough falls in this brave new RR-less world. Let me explain.

Ever since the mid-1960s, when the hamlet of Queensborough lost its own small post office – which had been very ably managed in my early childhood years here by the late Blanche McMurray at the general store that she and her husband, Clayton, ran – Queensborough has been served by mail deliverers based at the post office in Madoc. We were always, as I mentioned above, Madoc Rural Route No. 2. (And of course in my mind, if possibly nowhere else, we still are.)

But here’s the thing: in the late 1990s, when the Ontario government in its wisdom decided that many small Ontario municipalities needed to merge into each other and become larger (and theoretically more efficient) municipalities, Queensborough became a part of the newly created Municipality of Tweed. Until then we had been one of the two (or was it three?) hamlets in the extremely rural municipality known as Elzevir Township; but Elzevir, while it still exists in name, is now part of the much larger Municipality of Tweed, which also swallowed up the former Hungerford Township south of the village of Tweed. At the same time, the former village of Madoc and township of Huntingdon merged to become the Municipality of Centre Hastings. Many other such mergers happened all over the province, with the resultant sad loss of many historical names and geographical designations: goodbye, for instance, Victoria County, and hello “City of Kawartha Lakes.” Don’t get me started.

tweed-logo

The Municipality of Tweed includes us here in Queensborough.

Anyway. Long story short, Queensborough is and has been for nearly two decades a part of the Municipality of Tweed. We pay our taxes to Tweed, we take our trash and recycling to the dump in Tweed, we vote for Tweed councillors (and are quite ably represented by them); in pretty much every reckoning, including geographically, we are part of Tweed.

But our post office is in Madoc! And thus our mailing addresses have Madoc in them. And without that RR in those addresses, they look like this:

Katherine Sedgwick
847 Bosley Rd.
Madoc, Ont.
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Which makes it look like Bosley Road is in Madoc! Which it isn’t! Yikes! Wrong town! While we had that RR in place, the Madoc part of our address made sense; without it, it doesn’t. Bosley Road is, for better or worse, in Tweed.

Madoc Post Office

The post office in Madoc, whence comes the mail that arrives at the Manse and in the rest of Queensborough. But is Madoc our address? It’s a bit of a puzzle.

I fear that the disappearance of RRs from our addresses is going to lead to future confusion. Already Google and other online location services are befuddled. When, for instance, I post a photo on the social-media app Instagram and try to add my location to it, things go quite haywire. The suggestions that come up include “Queensborough Community Centre, 1853 Queensborough Rd., Madoc” (which, again, makes it sound like the community centre is in Madoc when in fact it too is in Tweed); “Tweed, Ontario”; “Madoc Fair Grounds, Madoc”; “Eldorado, Ontario”; and so on. Not the one designation I do want, which is, of course, “Queensborough, Ont.” When I do a search for that, I get no results.

(Though for a brief shining moment – actually a couple of weeks – last fall I found that Instagram would allow me to find and use Queensborough as a location. Then it stopped. Weird.)

So yeah: this disappearing RR thing is leaving us in Queensborough in a bit of location limbo, We know where we are; but will people trying to find us?

Then again: what better way to keep our little jewel of a village our own special secret?

The future of our school: please mark Jan. 17 on your calendar

turkey-dinner-at-madoc-township-public-school-december-2016

It is a Christmas tradition at Madoc Township Public School to serve a full turkey dinner to parents and other members of the school community each December. Here’s one photo from this year’s event, which happened in the school gym last Tuesday. (Hey, I remember when that gym was built! It was a big event!) You can see more photos of this and other activities at our wonderful rural school at its Facebook page, here. (Photo from the Madoc Township Public School Facebook page)

It’s been a while since I posted about the threat to Madoc Township Public School, the small and excellent rural elementary school that children from Queensborough, Madoc Township and surrounding areas have been attending for many decades. As everyone in my immediate geographic area knows, the local public board of education, the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board, is proposing to close MTPS as of the end of the current school year and start busing its students to the playground-challenged Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc. (For those of you who are further away and perhaps less personally invested in this community issue, my earlier posts explaining it all are here and here.)

Me in front of Madoc Township Public School

Me in front of my old school a few summers ago.

Anyway: the threat has certainly not gone away. The school board continues with its process, which is called (in classic education-bureaucracy-speak) an “accommodation review” as opposed to what it really is, which is: a proposal to close a school.

(In a wonderful bit of – what? irony? coincidence? – Madoc Township Public School was recently placed atop every other school in the board’s jurisdiction for student achievement in reading, writing and math in the annual national survey done by the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank. [I always wonder when I hear that phrase: why do they think in tanks, of all places?] Teachers and education administrators routinely pooh-pooh the Fraser Institute’s reports; parents, who care about their kids’ achievements in reading, writing and math – not so much. For me, the results reinforced what I already knew about the quality of the teaching and learning at Madoc Township Public School, having experienced them first-hand from Grades 1 through 6.)

Anyway, back to the “accommodation review.” Advertisements about what happens next have appeared in the local newspapers in the past couple of weeks. Probably many of the people who care deeply about Madoc Township Public School have seen these ads, but since paper delivery can be spotty (don’t get me started), and since not everybody reads the ads, I thought it would be useful to draw them to your attention here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. So here we go, and I’ll go into some of the details below. (Click on the image if you want/need to see it larger.)

Madoc schools "accommodation process"

What this tells you is this: the board is asking for people – parents and other folks from the local community – to put their names forward to be members of what it calls an “accommodation review committee.” The committee’s mandate is to “act as an official conduit of information shared between the school board and the school communities.” One can only hope that this translates to “share the feelings of the community with the board” and not just “try to make the board’s message about closing Madoc Township Public School more palatable to the community.”

I hope there are people willing to put their names forward to be on the committee. If you happen to be one of them, don’t delay; the deadline to apply is this coming Thursday, Dec. 22. More information about the process can be found here.

So that’s one important thing. Probably even more important is the first public meeting that the board has scheduled to talk about the proposed closure and related moves of students to Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School. As you’ll see in the right-hand column of the newspaper ad, that meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 6:30 p.m., in the gym at CHSS in Madoc.

As a former education reporter, I can tell you that public meetings of this sort can have a big impact on final decisions by school boards. If people who care about Madoc Township Public School show up in good numbers, speak respectfully but knowledgeably (having done their research and carried out their discussions with fellow members of the community), and decline to back down in the face of what is likely to be a “Sorry, but this is the only way” message from the board and its administrators – it can and will make a difference.

As a former student and proud graduate of of Madoc Township Public School, and a current member of the local school community (and supporter of the public school board through my property taxes), I plan to be there.

I hope you do too.

Saving a school is hard work. It’s worth it.

Front of Madoc Township Public School

Madoc Township Public School, an excellent rural school that was built in 1961 and is threatened with closure at the end of the current school year. Let’s hope we can change that.

I am stunned by the number of people who read and shared my post from yesterday about the local public school board’s proposal to close Madoc Township Public School. Never has anything I’ve written in the almost five years that Meanwhile, at the Manse has been in existence come near to reaching an audience of that size. What does that tell me? It tells me that people care deeply about either the plight of rural schools in general in Ontario, or the specific plight of Madoc Township Public School – or more probably, both.

Even though I normally write only once a week, I thought I should update readers on developments that have taken place since yesterday’s post was written. I also wanted to offer some thoughts on how those who want to save our school might tackle the mission.

First, I want to say that I have thought better of my choice of words for the headline on yesterday’s post: “They want to close our school. We can push back.” Yes, it is 100-per-cent true that the recommendation that went before trustees on the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board yesterday was that the Township school be closed, that its students be bused to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and that all grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas be moved to the high school in Madoc, Centre Hastings Secondary.

But then again, does anyone – the paid school-board administrators or the trustees who are elected by you and me to sit on the board and make the decisions – really want to close a school? I’m sure they don’t, given how much upset and outrage such moves always entail. This recommendation comes because our school board and many others are battling serious financial issues and a funding arrangement with the provincial government that severely limits the boards’ options. As a result, having thought about it quite a bit, I’ve modified that headline to read, “They say our school should be closed. We can push back.”

Now to the developments over the past 36 hours or so:

Yesterday afternoon, the school board’s school enrolment/school capacity committee received the recommendation from board administrators to begin a process called an “accommodation review” of schools in three areas: ours (that is, the Madoc area), Belleville, and Prince Edward County. This “accommodation review” (what does that mean, anyway?) is a process that will look at the feasibility of acting on the administrators’ recommendations that come with it, which involve closing quite a few schools and consolidating students elsewhere. (You can read a full report about it here.)

The committee did accept the recommendation – though I am pleased to say that the trustee who represents schools (including Madoc Township P.S.) and families in our area, Bonnie Danes, voted against it, expressing concerns about the loss of this important part of the rural community – and it then went before the full board last night. The board too gave the green light to the “accommodation reviews.”

Now, it’s very important to explain that school closures are a long way from a done deal at this point. The board’s vote last night merely sets the wheels in motion, and begins a process that will involve public consultation. Here, in fact (from the full report presented to the board, which you can read here), is the timeline. As you’ll see, the final and decisive vote won’t happen until this coming June:

school-review-timeline-page-1

school-review-timeline-page-2Another development since last I wrote is that Hastings County council also had a meeting, this very day. At it, as you can read here, councillors from our neck of the woods expressed what the Intelligencer‘s headline calls “deep concerns” about the proposed school closures. The councillors voted to meet with the school board to talk about the issues, and if necessary, to take their concerns to Ontario’s minister of education. To which I say: good for them. The mayor of Tweed, the municipality of which Queensborough is a part, said it well: “It does (affect) the community when you lose a school.”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Rural communities like ours in Tweed, Madoc, Madoc Township and, yes, Queensborough, are thinly populated, and services and amenities are few and scattered. People who live here don’t – for the most part – complain about that; we make the best use we can of the services and amenities we do have. I’m thinking here of (to throw out just a few examples) the first-rate medical centre we have in Madoc. And the 24-hour grocery store that has saved my life (or at least my supper) more than once. And an incredible winery just up the road in the hamlet of Sulphide that is poised to become world-famous. And fantastic public libraries in Madoc and Tweed. And so on.

Our schools are among the most precious of our local services. The economies of our rural municipalities need people to come and live and work and open businesses and pay taxes here. If we lose schools, people with families (or who might someday have families) are less likely to do that. And then things just get worse. On the other hand, a vote of confidence in a school is a huge vote of confidence in the community it serves, and can be a major shot in the arm to that community’s economy and well-being and future.

Does the Ontario government want to support rural economies and rural life? Let’s hope the answer to that is yes. Let’s hope that the protests on behalf of rural schools that took place at Queen’s Park yesterday (yet another development in the past 36 hours) will have an impact.

Meanwhile, what can we, as ordinary folks who live in a rural area, do to try to save Madoc Township Public School? As you’ll have seen from the school board’s timeline, over the coming months there will be quite a few board meetings and consultation meetings and “public” meetings (I put “public” in quotation marks because all of these meetings are, or should be, open to the public – the people who, through their property taxes, pay the freight). We need to attend those meetings. And we need to come prepared. We need, to use a classic educational turn of phrase, to do our homework.

Stomping into a public meeting and shouting, “You can’t close my school!” is not constructive, and not all that helpful to anyone. If you’re going to push back against a proposal like a school closure, you should have a workable alternative or two up your sleeve:

  • What are the reasons the board administrators have for suggesting the school be closed – the school’s drawbacks and shortcomings? What suggestions can we come up with to mitigate those?
  • What is the financial reality the board is facing? What ways can we come up with to help it achieve its financial obligations while keeping our school open?
  • Why do the board administrators think things would be better for our kids if they went to a different school? What evidence can we supply to show that this isn’t – or at least needn’t be – the case?
  • What haven’t the board administrators thought of? What interesting and creative and exciting ideas can we come up with for our school that will help it better serve our community and, at the same time, allow the board to meet its provincially set financial targets?

Creativity will be required. The proverbial thinking outside the box.

Bravery will be required. It can be scary to put forward counter-proposals to those made by educational bureaucrats who are paid to come up with them, and are well-trained in the lingo and the tactics of defending their proposals.

But politeness, and kindness, and consideration for the plight the trustees and those school-board administrators find themselves in, are also really important. A polite and constructive dialogue will generally go a lot farther in resolving a problem than will a nasty shouting match.

That said: Creativity, again. Bravery, again. And hard work (getting names on petitions; getting people out to meetings; brainstorming ideas). And research.

And most of all: a determination to stand up for what’s best for our kids and our community.

The mighty moose, felled

moose

“Where still the mighty moose wanders at will” went the words of a song many of us learned in school. This photo is how I like to think of moose – not what they look like when they have been hunted down and killed. (Photo from the website of the Canadian Wildlife Federation)

So there I was, standing at the ATM in the front lobby of the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Madoc, beside a window that looks out onto the village’s main intersection. Vehicles coming from all directions meet, stop, and give each other priority at this busy four corners. Cars pausing at the four-way stop while travelling north may bear people heading home from jobs in Belleville. Vehicles travelling east and west may be taking people to and from those edges of town, or further afield to Tweed (to the east) or Marmora (to the west). Or they may be bound all the way to Ottawa or Toronto or beyond.

As for those coming through from the north, down Highway 62 from Bancroft or places much more northerly than that: often they are huge trucks carrying logs cut from the woodlands up there, travelling to the mills in the south where they will be turned into lumber and/or paper products. Those trucks always remind me that not very far away from us here in the Queensborough area are vast swathes of Canada’s natural resources. In the summertime, meanwhile, you see cars and trucks pulling boat trailers, or with kayaks or bikes on the roof racks – cottagers and adventurers returning to the city from vacations on the lakes and rivers of the near north.

At this time of year, though, you see something else. You see the hunters returning with their trophies.

That is what caught my eye when I glanced out the window for a split-second while waiting for the ATM transaction to finish. There was a big pickup truck pulling a big trailer – nothing unusual so far. Then I saw something huge, pointy and broad. It registered: antlers, probably more than a yard across. And what was that massive rounded mound sticking so far above the side of the trailer? It was the size of my entire upper body. It was, of course, the muzzle of a moose. A gigantic moose. As the truck turned the corner to carry on southward, I could see the moose’s long legs tied together, also sticking up into the air.

My first reaction was shock at the sheer size of the beast. I’ve had few experiences with moose; there was a smallish one crossing the highway once in front of a car I was in (mercifully not travelling very fast); and after that, maybe a couple of stuffed ones in natural-history museums. But even that limited experience told me that the dead one I’d just seen was not your average moose. This was truly the “mighty moose” of that old Canadian folk song we learned in school. In the song, of course, the mighty moose, used as a symbol of the essence of Canada’s wildlands, “wanders at will.” Not this moose. Not any more. Never again.

My sadness about that is the more lasting reaction I’m having to the surprise sighting of the moose though the bank window. The sadness is sticking to me, so much so that I find myself writing about it quite a few days after the fact of spotting the moose’s carcass.

Hunting ad in the local paper

Ads like this in the local paper used to catch me by surprise. Not any more.

We live in an area where hunting season is huge. I have been away from the city long enough now that I am no longer surprised, or even taken aback, when our weekly newspapers have full-front-page ads for guns and other hunting gear come October and November. Or when the parking lots of local restaurants are a sea of trucks and trailers hauling rugged ATVs – groups of hunters stopping for a meal before heading into the bush. I have finally learned not to expect men to be available for social events or anything else in the weeks when deer hunting is open. I understand, and have written about, the camaraderie of the hunting camp. I totally get that hunting is extremely important for this area’s economy. I get it that it takes skill, endurance and hard work to be a good hunter, and that many, probably most, hunters have a deep respect for the animals that are their quarry. I know that they love the woodlands and the wilds that are so important to Canada, and that a lot of them work to protect those wild places.

All those things I know in my head.

But in my heart is this: a sadness that will not go away over the sight of that moose, that magnificent beast, killed and trussed up and being hauled south. And for what? Food? Maybe; maybe. A set of antlers on a wall? Probably. Is that really worth the death of such a magnificent – yes, mighty – creature, a symbol of our country?

Like I said, I get the hunting thing, that there are reasons for hunting to be allowed, that it’s important to many people (many of whom are my friends), for many reasons. All of that.

But I have a very hard time believing that anyone or anything in this world is better off because of the killing of that mighty moose. I mourn for him. And I think I always will.