News Local

School closure fears multiply

By Ian McInroy, Barrie Examiner

Declining enrolment numbers have forced the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board to conduct a pupil accommodation review (PAR) for its elementary schools in Barrie's north end.

When the review is completed and a report is presented to board trustees, the end result could be one less school.

The second of four public meetings was held Monday night at Sister Catherine Donnelly Catholic School, one of six schools - Monsignor Clair Catholic School, St. Marguerite d'Youville Catholic School, St. Mary's Catholic School, St. Monica's Catholic School and The Good Shepherd Catholic School are the others - involved in the review.

Except for Good Shepherd (119%), all the school are under-capacity. St. Monica's is at 59% capacity, Monsignor Clair is 78%, Sister Catherine Donnelly is 68%, St. Marguerite d'Youville is 63% and St. Mary's is 78%.

The six schools have a combined capacity for 2,428 students, but the October 2011 enrolment is 1,858, meaning there is a combined surplus of 23 classrooms.

Members of the review committee will consider five alternatives when finalizing their report, which will eventually be considered by trustees: status quo (doing nothing and leaving five of the six schools under capacity); pursuing partnerships to utilize the surplus space and mitigate operating costs; utilize surplus space for academic services; other options not yet considered; or close one of the schools and redistribute the students to the five other schools.

It's the last option, one that is preferred by board staff, that has concerned parents asking questions.

Many have asked board officials if the review is being held as a roundabout way to free up one of the schools to be used as a new administration centre.

Currently, the board has offices in three buildings: one that is leased on Bell Farm Road and two that the board owns on Alliance Boulevard and Ferndale Drive.

"The need for a board office would not drive this process. (Even) if we had a prefect board office, we would still be here having this (pupil accommodation review)," Steve Charbonneau, superintendent of education and chair of the review committee, told parents during the first public meeting in November.

The processes are totally separate, according to board spokeswoman Diane Legg.

"No matter what the outcome is of the PAR, we will still need to look at how to meet the facility needs for our three board offices," she said. "And no matter what happens with regard to board facilities, we still have a responsibility to address declining enrolment in our schools in the north-Barrie area."

Concerns with over-capacity at the five schools are driving the process, Charbonneau said.

"Funding decreases as enrolment goes down. They are directly linked," he said. "The challenge we are faced with is declining elementary and secondary numbers and their effect on the operating budget.

"The closure of 23 classrooms will allow for flexibility with the savings going elsewhere, directly into programs and services for students, and that is ultimately what this is all about."

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there was substantial growth in Barrie, but an analysis in 2003 saw a significant shift in the numbers.

"In the last couple of years (since 2005), long-term projections and increasing declines are why we're here today," he said. "This is a provincial shift. We we made building and funding decisions based on demographic information at that time."

In 2003, the board had a site development near Johnson Street in the city's east end. But after analysis of the impending enrolment decline, it was determined that the board didn't need another school in that area and gave up the site.

Legg said there is still plenty of time for parents with questions and concerns to voice them to the board. They contact their school's pupil accommodation committee members, the principal or visit to view more detailed information and ways to offer comment on the process.

The next public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 19 at St. Monica's Catholic School.

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