News Local

Keep school open: council

Bob Bruton

By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner

City councillors' considerable weight has been thrown behind Barrie Central Collegiate.

They told the Simcoe County District School Board, in no uncertain terms, Monday that they unanimously don't support the downtown high school's closure.

"It really affects all families that are part of the public school board," said Coun. Lynn Strachan. "Parents of every child in Grades 5 or 6, you are looking at sending your child to an overcrowded school."

Board administrators have made public an option to close Central in 2012, redistribute its 900 to 1,000 students to the city's four other high schools -- Barrie North Collegiate, Bear Creek, Eastview and Innisdale -- all of which are over-capacity now -- and apply for funding for a new southend school.

"A whole generation of students could be educated in portables and that should concern all of us," said Coun. John Brassard.

Strachan is a voting member of the accommodation review committee (ARC), which will make a recommendation by March 2. The school board can accept that choice, take the staff option, or come up with its own alternative.

But if the trustees decide to close Central, city planning staff say a school site in Barrie's southend, in the former Innisfil lands, won't be open and operating until the fall of 2018 at the earliest.

"The implications of what they (school trustees) do with Central will impact each and every one of us in our wards," said Coun. Michael Prowse. "It doesn't affect one school and the city centre. It affects the whole city."

The next ARC public meeting takes place tonight from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Barrie Central's Fisher Auditorium. Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, Progressive Conservative candidate Rod Jackson, Alix Markman, Shelly Wright, Lisa Markov and Dr. Werner Fabian will all make delegations.

During its last meeting before the Christmas holidays, on Dec. 13, council invited trustees and administration to a future meeting to discuss issues pertaining to Barrie schools.

Debra Edwards, chairwoman of the school board, said this wouldn't happen.

"We are not able to send a representative to a council meeting to discuss 'issues pertaining to schools in Barrie' while the current accommodation review process is proceeding for Barrie high schools," she told the city.

Edwards said it's her understanding that Strachan is updating council on this matter.

Coun. Barry Ward said he was extremely disappointed with this response.

"One of the issues we talked about is poor communication," he said. "The letter (from Edwards) says we will keep that poor communication going."

The school board has also instructed its staff to pursue partners to enhance a business case to rebuild or repair Central -- but it must change the economics of the site to be a viable option. City staff have now provided information on potential partners and funding models to be explored by the board to maintain a downtown high school.

Lehman said the city has found four interested partners.

Mady Development, which has projects in the downtown, has offered its assistance in redeveloping Barrie Central.

Mark Vosylius, of Mady, said its people could meet with board officials to discuss a private/public partnership to replace the downtown high school -- a facility which could stand alone or be integrated into larger, mixed-use development.

"It would be a great loss to (the) downtown should Barrie Central Collegiate Institute close its doors," Vosylius told the school board.

But Strachan said there have been no talks yet with the school board about these opportunities.

"We're asking the school board to defer a decision, to wait and see what happens with some of these other plans we have," she said. "There are so many unanswered questions. But one thing that is clear is that schools are essential to creating neighbour-hoods."

The city is already making efforts to revitalize its core area -- rebuilding the Downtown Community Theatre, building a new fire station, is actively seeking a partner for a new hotel/convention centre, has reconstructed and improved area roads and approved more intensive residential development near the waterfront.

Ontario's Places to Grow plan also designates central Barrie as an urban growth centre, a complete community.

The motion passed by councillors Monday is to be sent to all the local and provincial players, and they will be asked where they stand on this matter. The mailing list includes Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

"I think we have a real opportunity here, there is a provincial election coming," said Brassard. "We need to hold their feet to the fire here, so they know how important this is to the city of Barrie.

"Make this a political issue."

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