Communities rally to preserve schools
The overriding message at Thursday's special board meeting was that towns and villages need their high schools as essential threads in the the fabric of the community.
About 300 people attended the meeting, representing school communities in Stayner, Elmvale and Penetanguishene.
An accommodation review committee - known as ARC 'B' - was struck to make a recommendation to the Simcoe County District School Board about how to handle the future of five high schools: Stayner Collegiate (SCI), Penetanguishene Secondary (PSS), Elmvale District (EDHS), Midland Secondary (MSS) and Collingwood Collegiate (CCI).
ARC member Michele Locke said many meetings were confrontational and the process wound up pitting communities against each other.
The board says it would cost more than $23 million to bring the Elmvale, Stayner and Penetanguishene schools up to snuff.
After numerous meetings, the ARC recommended a five-school option, which would keep all five high schools open, including a replacement school in Elmvale.
However, a staff report delivered to the board following the presentation of the ARC recommendations suggested three schools would be enough: Collingwood Collegiate, Midland Secondary, and a new school serving Wasaga Beach and Elmvale. That would mean the closing of high schools in Stayner, Penetanguishene, and the existing one in Elmvale.
George Allen, former ARC 'B' co-chair, said the ministry - in light of projected enrolment declines - wants schools to be the community hub, including programs for seniors and health care. The ARC recommendation - which had consensus from all of the affected communities - was "the educationally preferred option," he said.
"We are not large urban centres and our schools should reflect that," said Clearview Township Coun. Shawn Davidson, adding SCI may have higher operating costs, but it also has higher graduation rates and fewer fifth-year students.
John Brennan, whose sons graduated from EDHS, echoed Davidson's comments.
"In this era of big-box and supersize, bigger is not always better," he said, adding two of the board's smaller elementary schools - Elmvale's Huronia Centennial and Everett's Tosorontio Central - wouldn't exist under the new mandate for larger schools.
Davidson said he was "disheartened" by the staff report, adding SCI is the only school in the ARC that could see a population increase in the next decade.
Two buses of supporters came from Stayner, while another five busloads of people were brought down from Penetanguishene.
"I didn't bring a Power Point presentation, I brought the students and parents of Penetang," said Penetanguishene Mayor Anita Dubeau. "Penetang embodies the very essence of a complete community."
Both Dubeau and Clearview Township Mayor Ken Ferguson said their communities should retain their high schools because they fit with provincial planning policies.
Dubeau said PSS has the school population the board is looking for.
"Why remove a French-immersion program from a bilingual community? Why spend $40 million on renovations, including an elevator for accessibility, over the last five years?" she asked.
If PSS were to close, Norman Mason, of the Protestant Separate School Board, which operates an elementary school in the town, said his organization may express interest in taking over the high school facility.
"I believe these students would choose to stay in their community," he said, adding religion is "not a big hang-up" for his board, the only one of its kind in Ontario.
Ferguson said SCI and Stayner fit the "complete community" bill and should remain open because the main fire hall and township offices are both located there.
"Stayner can go the distance," he said, adding secondary- and elementary-aged children represent about 22 per cent of the township's population.
The Ministry of Education has said schools can't be closed to open new schools in other communities, yet that is what the board could do by shuttering EDHS and building a new school in Wasaga Beach.
"The ARC recognized that Wasaga Beach wanted a school, just like the other communities," said Lynn Brennan, an ARC member representing EDHS. "But why close schools, change boundaries and create a school that needs busing?
"You have to recognize the difference between housing students and providing a home."
Ferguson said he supports Wasaga Beach having its own high school.
"But it must stand on its own merit, and not at the expense of others," he said. "We wouldn't be in this situation if Wasaga Beach wasn't looking for a school now."
The board is expected to make a final decision June 17.