The mayors from a pair of Elgin county municipalities along with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek made their best pitch Tuesday (Nov. 19) at a special meeting of Thames Valley District School Board trustees.
But it was a member of the Wilson family of Malahide who hit the ball out of the park in a bid to rescind a TVDSB motion to close New Sarum and Springfield public schools.
The meeting was held to allow public input on a motion introduced last month by Elgin trustee Meagan Ruddock to reverse a decision to close the pair of schools next year.
After the school board completed an accommodation study of a dozen area schools two years ago, it was recommended four of them be closed: South Dorchester, Westminster Central, New Sarum and Springfield public schools.
A fifth, Sparta Public School, was to be repurposed as a French immersion school.
Fifteen delegations were presented during the two-hour meeting with Yurek suggesting the construction of a smaller school than originally proposed in Belmont could allow the two threatened schools to remain open.
For the most part, presenters were in favour of Ruddock’s motion with the exception of a pair of parents with children attending Westminster Central Public School who argued senior administrative reports did not support the motion.
During his five-minute allotted time, Yurek noted “The role of elected officials in this matter, including myself as MPP, has been called into question over the course of discussions on the motion as it has been brought forward.
“And I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that my role as MPP has been to advocate for the concerns and wishes of my constituents . . . to ensure the riding receives the resources it deserves.
“I did note one letter sent to the trustees said this was a political gift. I think the trustees here, myself and the mayors know that this is not a political gift. There are going to be some people unhappy with the decision going forward.”
Yurek stressed he has continually highlighted to education minister Stephen Lecce “both the need for a new school in Belmont and for the schools in Springfield and New Sarum to be maintained.”
A position, added Yurek, “I have made clear since 2017. It is the right process for Elgin county.
“Minister Lecce has been highly receptive of the proposal and has indicated he would support this amendment if it was incorporated into the upcoming capital planning submission.”
Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn – who taught at New Sarum and Sparta public schools – observed schools in rural municipalities are vital to the health and vitality of their communities.
“The schools act as a gathering place, a place where children and families develop friendships and a sense of community.
“My question is, why would you take schools out of rural communities that already have a tremendous sense of community and are the centre of their community and put them in a school that is miles and miles away from where they live.”
Martyn stressed busing costs were not considered in the original school board proposal.
“We all know that busing costs go up every year. Closing schools in the centre of their catchment area and busing the students two or three times as far makes no economic or environmental sense.”
Malahide Mayor Dave Mennill pointed out, “Staff stated we must look 40 years ahead when planning. I would suggest closing Springfield Public School is ignoring the potential growth in the next 40 years.
“Malahide is Number 6 in Canada for immigration in a non-urban centre. History has demonstrated that many of the first-generation immigrants send their children to a private school.
“But by the second or third generation, they are entering the public system.”
In her PowerPoint presentation, Heather Derks – representing the Kettle Creek School council – noted the ministry of education is suggesting a review, “And as a final comment, I would like to add we need everybody in this room, the leaders of our education system, to work as one.
“Should unelected bureaucrats and an outside consulting firm from Toronto be allowed to change the fate of an entire rural municipality?”
“We need our trustees to have accurate information. And we need our staff to have direction. They need to be directed to conduct a review.”
In what could be argued as a case of having the big bat come to the plate with the winning run on base – certainly coincidence more than anything – Johnny Wilson from the Springfield Public School community advised trustees they need to dig deeper than the report in front of them.
There is one glaring omission, cautioned Wilson.
“Where are the busing costs. These are just the figures that suit the administration’s plan and not the facts required for a decision. Should unelected bureaucrats and an outside consulting firm from Toronto be allowed to change the fate of an entire rural municipality?
Wilson continued, “Why do half of the new schools built in the last 10 years already require portables? Of those schools that have had additions in the last five years, there are over 50 portables at these schools.
“There has to be a better way. A more ethical and equitable way, a more local and common-sense way of planning.”
Going forward, advised Wilson, bad plans can be changed.
“Our students are being used as pawns just for the Belmont business case. But does this business case consider what is best for our children? The moratorium on rural school closures. The board’s own wellness guidelines. Or busing costs, especially since more than half of our students currently walk to school.
“Is it considered that our own MPP and provincial cabinet minister Jeff Yurek has just told you there is no desire from the province to close Springfield or New Sarum Public School?
He stressed the last line of defence for parents at the two schools is the board trustees.
“Springfield’s numbers haven’t plummeted like the EPAR (Elementary Pupil Accommodation Review) figures told you they would. We are in fact growing at our own rural pace. Rural folks measure time in generations.
“Our perspective is different. We don’t look four years ahead at re-elections for our decisions. We have longer-term interests at heart. We need a school in our community and we also think that Belmont should have a school and never should have been without one.
“However, we don’t believe that you need to cut the heart out of our community to do it.”
Trustees are expected to vote on Ruddock’s motion at the Nov. 26 board meeting.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
Visit us on Facebook