News Local

School closures suspended

By Raymond Bowe, Barrie Examiner

The final bell at high schools in Elmvale, Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood and Stayner won't ring anytime soon.

Simcoe County District School Board trustees voted 8-3 last night to postpone indefinitely any secondary school closures in those areas, following a motion tabled by Brad Saunders. Voting against the motion were Donna Armstrong, Nancy Halbert and Jodi Lloyd.

The crowd -- with heavy representation from Penetanguishene and Elmvale, the two schools most at risk of closing -- cheered after the votes were tallied.

Caroline MacKinnon, a Grade 12 student at Elmvale District High School, said talk about her school being shuttered has been ongoing since she was in elementary school.

"I've been waiting a long time for this (decision)," she said. "We have really good school spirit, so it would've been devastating to hear it was going to close."

"The response (from the crowd) stands for itself," said Elmvale District principal Randy Bauer, who estimated about 100 of his students attended the meeting. "There was a lot of anxiety. It's good news, but it also leaves the door open in the weeks and months to come."

The happiness may be only temporary. Trustees can revisit the issue in the future.

Saunders said the matter may be best dealt with by the next board of trustees, which will be elected next year.

"Given our division on this issue, it's the only way to go," he said.

Trustee Armstrong disagreed.

"Postponing indefinitely is like putting our heads in the sand," she said, adding the decision does nothing to achieve much-needed renovations at EDHS, which is aging and overcrowded.

In the meantime, Tony Guergis and Anita Dubeau, the mayors of Springwater Township and Penetanguishene respectively, both said the decision gives their municipalities the chance to show that they are growth communities, and that their high schools should stay open.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks last night behind closing any high schools was the lack of provincial funding to build new ones.

An accommodation review committee -- known as ARC 'B' -- was struck in March 2008 to recommend to the board how to handle the future of five high schools: Stayner Collegiate Institute (SCI), Penetanguishene Secondary (PSS), Elmvale District (EDHS), Midland Secondary (MSS) and Collingwood Collegiate (CCI).

The board says it would cost more than $23 million to bring the Elmvale, Stayner and Penetanguishene schools up to par.

After numerous meetings, the ARC recommended a five-school option last May, which would keep all five schools open, including a replacement school in Elmvale.

However, a recommendation from board staff went against the ARC by presenting a three-school solution, by keeping CCI and MSS open and constructing a new high school in either Elmvale or Wasaga Beach.

But trustees said making a crucial decision based on Ministry of Education funding -- or the lack thereof -- was the wrong thing to do at this point.

Due to the current financial crisis, Saunders said there is no money to construct a new school. Until there is more funding available to the board, he said closing any schools in ARC 'B' would be "an impossibility."

Trustee Debra Edwards said there just isn't enough money in Ontario to go around.

"It's an impossible dream and we're set up for failure," she said. "We have to stop the turmoil within these communities."

Trustee Robert North said what changed his stance on the ARC 'B' matter was the building of a new French-language school in south-end Barrie. With only about 80 students, that school runs at about 17% capacity, he said, while the public board is being pushed by the province to deal with a school such as MSS, which operates at about 85% capacity.

"There's something very wrong with that," North said.

However, Lloyd said the provincial funding for the as-yet-unnamed French school was obtained about five years ago.

"I don't care where the money came from, whether it was the ministry or 6/49," North said. "There is a gross inadequacy there."

Carol McAulay, superintendent of business and facilities, said it's unlikely the board would receive any capital funding without first dealing with capacity issues at its high schools in northern Simcoe County.

School boundary reviews will also be undertaken in Midland, Penetanguishene, Elmvale, Stayner, Collingwood, Orillia, Essa Township and parts of Barrie.

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