Of Mark Twain and the London-centred school board

 city_scope_logo-cmyk“You close down a school in a small town and kids suddenly spend hours on the bus going to other communities.” That’s an observation from David Thompson, chairman of the Near North District School Board in Ontario, gleaned from a St. Thomas & District Chamber of Commerce news release calling for a moratorium on school closures.
At the May 6 Ontario Chamber of Commerce convention in Sarnia, member chambers adopted a resolution “supporting a moratorium on closures and for organizations including the Chamber to be engaged by the school boards to consult economic impact.”
In St. Thomas and Elgin, the Thames Valley District School board will decided later this month on a proposal to close schools in Sparta, New Sarum, South Dorchester and Springfield. Sparta would be the first to close and then be re-purposed as a second French Immersion school in Elgin.

Trustees with the London-centred school board will vote on May 23. 
The news release points out, “The Ontario Chamber of Commerce has been a strong advocate for ensuring that provincial arbitrators, when making decisions on contract disputes between municipalities and police/firefighter unions, ensure that economic conditions and the ability to pay within a municipality are formally evaluated and considered. The same principles should apply to potential school closures to ensure board trustees reach conclusions based on wider community economic and social impacts.”
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is urging the province to:
“Place an immediate moratorium on school closures in Ontario until the provincial Accommodation Review Guidelines are revised to require consideration of the economic and social impact of planned and potentialclosures prior to final boards of education decisions;
Ensure that the Ontario Chamber of Commerce is consulted on the aggregate provincial impact of schoolclosures and that local Chambers of Commerce/Boards of Trade are included in discussions with school boards on current and pending accommodations reviews.”
Earlier this month over the course of two evenings, the London-centred school board heard passionate presentations from parents, students, politicians and the business community opposed to shuttering the schools.
The TVDSB board meetings are live-streamed on YouTube and you can watch the May 2 meeting and May 3 meeting.
Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek stressed the review process was too brief and questioned whether the trustees actually listened to alternative solutions proposed by the community at large.
“I’m asking you to listen to parents,” challenged Yurek.
St. Thomas developer Doug Tarry had one of the most compelling presentations, telling trustees up front “it would be really dumb to close New Sarum because you are going to wipe out empty seats at Mitchell Hepburn.”
With the number of new homes coming online, Tarry insisted both schools will be needed. A total of 92 lots in his newest St. Thomas subdivision sold out within four days of release.
John Huestonjpg

John Hueston, Aylmer Express president

Perhaps the most compelling – and annoying to the London-centred board – was the graphic presentation by John Hueston, president of the Aylmer Express newspaper.

He opened with the Mark Twain quote, “In the first place, God made idiots. This was just for practice. Then he made school boards.”
Board members were visually and verbally chaffing through the rest of Hueston’s colourful and uncomfortable tell-it-like-it-is.
A demonstration that included a locally baked pie to illustrate how money is spent and a more than nine-foot-long computer printout listing all the members of the TVDSB who earn in excess of $100,000.
“And we’re saving money here,” quipped Hueston.
A reminder again. The trustees will vote on May 23. If you can’t attend in person, it will be live-streamed on YouTube.
The city is moving forward on preserving its past.
Council members will be asked to approve a report Monday from Stantec Consulting, hired by the city last year to examine the merits of designating part of the downtown core as a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) .
Stantec has completed its area study and is recommending a portion of Talbot Street, from Queen Street to the west side of Alma Street be considered as an HCD. This portion of Talbot Street would include the railway lands on the south side.
Full page photo

Mickleborough Building on Talbot St. in St. Thomas dates back to the early 1900s. For a couple of years in the 1970s, it was the home of Marks and Spencer and Huston’s Fine Furniture held fort until the early 1990s.

The Stantec report explains an HCD “is an area that is protected by a municipal bylaw passed under Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act. An HCD provides a framework for protecting and conserving heritage resources by creating policies and guidelines to manage change and new development within the district.”

The report stresses such a designation would not “freeze” structures within the district into a certain time frame.
The area study highlights the city’s “importance as a railway hub in southern Ontario, historically linked to the larger North American rail network. The introduction of the railway in the community in the 1870s initiated a building boom that expanded the downtown core along Talbot Street and continued into the early decades of the 20th century.”
Should council give the green light to proceed, the next step would be to meet certain objectives as outlined in the Stantec report, including among other things: managing changes to existing buildings and public spaces; maintain and enhance “the existing downtown street wall”; encourage compatible redevelopment; work with property and business owners “to encourage and provide incentives for the conservation, restoration and appropriate maintenance of heritage buildings: and encourage “the enhancement of the public realm and city-owned properties within the HCD in a manner compatible with the district character.”
Related post: 
Council will be asked Monday to extend the service agreement between the city and St. Thomas Energy for the reading, billing and collection services related to water and sewage charges.
The previous agreement expired at the end of 2016 and the new extension will run through Dec. 31, 2022.
stthomasenergyjpgThe cost to the city for billing and collection services in 2014 was $294,000. That increased to $318,245 for 2015. In 2016, the figure quoted in a report to council from city engineer Justin Lawrence, is $305,965. We can only assume the interest earned on overdue accounts has been subtracted from the total, accounting for the decrease in costs last year.
However nowhere in the report is there any reference whatsoever to the outstanding amount of $5,557,951 still owing the city from St. Thomas Energy from the collection of water bills dating back to at least 2014. The amount due was contained in a report submitted to council in March of this year by the city’s director of finance David Aristone.
So city ratepayers have faithfully paid their monthly bills only to have St. Thomas Energy sidetrack that money in order to pay their own outstanding debts.
According to the formal agreement between the city and Ascent signed in April 2014, St. Thomas Energy “will pay to the municipality the water and waste water charges billed to the customers by the end of the month following the date of invoicing.”
In other words your water bills continue to keep St. Thomas Energy afloat.
Will members of council insist this practice of withholding monthly payments to the city not be permitted in this contract extension?
And we continue to question how this delinquent amount of $5.5 million will be accounted for in the upcoming merger with Entegrus?
Related post:
With work well underway on the Gateway Roundabout at the western approach to the city, attention is now focused on what would best represent the city in the centre island of the new road layout.
Four options are being put before council on Monday: landscaping; a steel sculpture; purchase of an old diesel locomotive from Port Stanley Terminal Rail; or purchase of a privately owned steam locomotive.
gateway roundabout sculpturejpg

Mock-up of Scott McKay’s proposed sculpture

In his report to council, Lawrence recommends Option 2, the steel sculpture at a cost of $186,000. It would have a very long life cycle and require little maintenance. The sculpture would be crafted by local blacksmith and artist Scott McKay, who is undertaking a pair of railway-themed sculptures for the St. Thomas Elevated Park. 

The roundabout sculpture would be comprised of a steam locomotive and tender, a passenger car and caboose. The size of the “train” increases from six feet at the caboose end to 18 feet at the locomotive, including the raised railway track.
To give you an idea of the scope of the project, it will require 25 tons of steel, a team of welders and about six months to complete. An animation of the proposed sculpture can be see at stthomas.ca/gateway.
As for the other options, the landscaping would have cost $120,000 but is considered pretty “basic” and would require continual maintenance. The PSTR locomotive would cost about $75,000 and have a 30-year lifespan with significant repair and ongoing maintenance.
Acquiring a steam locomotive could cost anywhere from $750,000 to $1.4 million and involve high maintenance costs.
Lawrence concludes, “The recommended gateway sculpture would create an iconic rail symbol at the gateway to St. Thomas that would be a positive for tourism, media exposure and civic pride.”
Related post:
In total, the city is investing over $48 million in capital infrastructure projects this year. Here is an update on some of these undertakings.
first avenue construction updatejpgThe First Avenue realignment south of Talbot Street is ahead of schedule and on budget, according to David Jackson, manager of capital works. It is due to open again to traffic some time next week.
gatewayroundaboutupdatejpgThe Gateway Roundabout is on schedule for completion by the end of June and is on budget.
southdaleroundaboutjpgThe Southdale Line/Lake Margaret Roundabout is on schedule and due for completion at the end of this month.
queen street constructionjpgThe rebuilding of Queen Street north from the courthouse should also be completed this week and is on budget.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope

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