News Local

School reviews spell trouble: group

By Raymond Bowe, Barrie Examiner

a new group formed to stop rural school closures and possibly reverse decisions made on others that have been disputed -- will be a topic of discussion, tonight, for public school board trustees.

There are no less than five accommodation review committees (ARCs) that have completed, or are progressing through, the lengthy process.

Simcoe County Warden Tony Guergis, a member on the alliance's 10-person executive, called the term ARC "a polite way" of referring to school closures and mergers.

"What's missing is a relationship between municipalities, the school board and the public," Guergis said.

The alliance also says the process used by school boards to make decisions about student accommodation, particularly closures, is 'flawed'.

At the recent Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) meeting in Ottawa, Guergis said the alliance was "the buzz in the elevators and on the escalators."

wants Education Minister Kathleen Wynne to impose a 'smart moratorium' on all school closures disputed by municipalities.

The alliance's goal is to make municipalities 'partners' with the school boards when it comes to decisions about where new schools are built and where they are closed.

It also

The ministry, boards and municipalities could then develop policies to address issues such as planning for declining enrolment, a mutually agreed upon ARC process, and a funding review for rural and small community schools.

The alliance also wants a better system to address school facility needs, including boards and municipalities working together on decisions regarding education infrastructure and more accountability on board decisions.

A special board meeting will be held tonight and issues raised by the alliance will be on the agenda.

"With the board of trustees, this will be our first actual discussion about this," said Diane Firman, chairwoman of the Simcoe County District School Board. "This alliance is new to us, (but) our goal is to find the best strategy to help every kid and our municipalities, as well. I think we're on the right path."

Trustees approved a motion in June, accepting Guergis' offer to join forces to meet with Wynne to discuss funding levels for the local school board, which are among the lowest per capita in the province.

Guergis called the funding levels "ridiculous," particularly in a rapidly growing area such as Simcoe County, which covers an area the size of Prince Edward Island.

"This is a fast-growing region with lots of issues," he said. "But our taxes are subsidizing other jurisdictions. Are we getting bang for our buck?"

Firman said board funding levels are below average, but the figures aren't that far out of whack.

"Those numbers are certainly something our staff has been looking into," Firman said. "The difference is not huge, not gazillions of dollars."

Both Guergis and Firman say the public school board and local municipalities have a good working relationship, but the warden wants to see it strengthened.

"There are lots of places they're seeing school boards won't even talk to (municipalities), so we have a good rapport," he said.

Firman said she believes the public school board has a positive relationship with local towns and townships, and the two cities.

"We want to continue that," Firman said, adding the Simcoe County school board's relationship with local municipalities is "absolutely different" than some of the others in the province, which are decidedly strained.

There are about 100 schools in Ontario going through accommodation reviews, and another 146 that will close or have been recommended for closure.

In Barrie, boundary changes are in order when Prince of Wales Public School closes in the city's downtown core, possibly as soon as next June. Renovations would be completed at other schools affected in the area, including Hillcrest, Andrew Hunter and Portage View.

"It's about right-sizing schools ... and Prince of Wales is a good example of that," Guergis said.

Also at the elementary level, boundaries will have to be shifted in the Alliston-Cookstown area to facilitate the June 30 closure of Tecumseth North. There would also be improvements at Tecumseth Beeton and Cookstown Central schools, as well as a replacement school at the Alliston Union site.

The future of high schools in the Georgian Triangle and North Simcoe are also in limbo, including Collingwood, Elmvale, Midland, Penetanguishene and Stayner. The committee has recommended a five-school option, which would keep all five high schools open, including a replacement school in Elmvale. A final decision could come as soon as Sept. 23.

Two high schools in Orillia -- Orillia District (ODCVI) and Park Street -- are facing closure, with a new facility to be built on the Park Street site, pending ministry funding and approval. The plan also includes improvements at Twin Lakes.

The fifth ARC, which is just getting underway, will discuss ways to handle students at five elementary schools in Clearview Township, including Byng and Clearview Meadows in Stayner, Duntroon Central, Nottawa, and Nottawasaga & Creemore.

"It's about taking a school completely out of a community or jurisdiction and busing (students instead)," said Guergis, who's also mayor of Springwater Township, where Elmvale is in danger of losing its high school.

Wasaga Beach politicians have been vocal over the years about the rapidly growing town getting its own secondary school. With Elmvale District's future up in the air, Beach officials have been lobbying hard to be the location for a new school. Students from the Beach are now bused to Stayner, Collingwood or Elmvale.

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