Minister of Education affirms responsibility of School Boards and Trustees contemplating school closures in open letter
Augusta Matters by Mayor Doug Malanka
Today, I was copied on an open six (6) page letter from the Minister of Education, Mitzie Hunter. The subject of the letter is unstated, but the first four plus pages largely reiterate the Ministry's position on what is expected from School Boards and School Trustees contemplating school closures in rural communities. According to the letter, the Government of Ontario supports and values all communities in Ontario, especially rural and remote communities. The letter confirms that the Minister expects meaningful engagement and input from communities and that final staff reports reflect advice to trustees on local economic and community impacts.
That stated, on October 25, 2016, the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures sent a letter to The Honourable Minister of Education, Mitzie Hunter. The Alliance stated that the revised Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline (PARG) had resulted in fast-tracked school closures that left no room for thoughtful and wise consideration of the social and economic effects of closing the only "community hub" in a rural or fragile neighbourhood setting. The Alliance held that prior to the changes to the PARG March 2015, school boards were required to prove that their decisions showed: i) value to the student, ii) value to the board, iii) value to the community and iv) value to the local economy and since then, the last two "values" have been quietly removed from the guideline. I concur.
The letter goes on to confirm that changes made to the 2015 (PARG) removed the requirement for value of the school to the local economy. The Minister justifies this by saying that this information was not readily available to the Boards or in their area of expertise. The conclusion was that it could be better reflected in the input from municipal partners.
One of the principal grievances of Municipalities regarding UCDSB Board recommendations for school closures is the failure of the UCDSB to demonstrate: i) value to the student, ii) value to the board, iii) value to the community and iv) value to the local economy municipalities. This appears to be what the Minister is saying but expects the boards to establish the latter two in consultation with municipalities. This has not happened in Augusta Township.
Now on the failure of Boards to have meaningful consultation with municipalities where it occurs, the Minister appears to admonish these municipalities stating that the Ministry is aware of situation where municipalities have not attended their "Annual Community Consultation" meetings and that some communities report not being aware of them.
In my view, the responsibility to ensure that municipalities are adequately consulted ultimately falls to trustees. They are elected by residents expecting that they know the community and are best placed to be a conduit to Municipalities for ensuring that Board recommendations demonstrate the four value criteria. It may have escaped Boards and the Ministry of Education that Municipalities struggle with heavy reporting requirements from the Province and with delivering municipal service residents on all fronts.
On another subject, the letter from the Minister of Education states that the Province and communities expect boards to maximize the opportunities for co-location including joint accommodation arrangements with coterminous boards particularly to maintain a school presence in a rural or remote community. The Minister added Ministry it stated a preference in 2013 for joint-use capital projects and that these capital projects would be reviewed before others. There is nothing in the board's recommendations to trustees for schools closures of which I am aware that addresses co‑location or even joint busing which is a significant outcome of the proposed school closures. The UCDSB replied that it will addressing busing concerns when they arise and this is unacceptable.
Another subject in the open letter is the importance of partnerships between school boards and municipalities. In my presentation to the UCDSB on March 1, I stated, "The Township of Augusta recognizes that the municipality and its residents have a significant stake in keeping schools open in our communities. Therefore, there are a number of ways in which the Township may contribute to support the Maynard School. The Township owns 13 acres of property adjacent to the Maynard Public school, portions of which could be donated to the UCDSB for construction of a new, accessible and energy efficient school appropriately sized for the community or shared at no cost to provide a wide variety of outdoor opportunities and education for students. The municipality has staff expertise that could be provided for well monitoring and water testing at no charge. Maynard is currently operating day care spaces in the Maynard School and there is a waiting list. The property could be expanded to accommodate both the improved school and additional day care spaces. Maynard Public School has significant room to grow. Indeed, a whole new modern efficient school could be built on the school property or adjacent Township lands while the existing school continues to be used for child care or other community hub purposes." I have invited Augusta Trustee, Chair, Jeff McMillan to meet with Augusta's CAO and I to explore partnership possibilities not considered in the Board's recommendations for school closures and have asked trustees not to make a decision on the closure of Maynard Public School until these options has been considered and assessed.
Finally, on the subject of community hubs, the very successful More Than Just Babysitting (MTJB) child care facility is currently housed at Maynard Public School. The Minister's letter confirms that a community hub can be a school that offers co-ordinated services such as education and early year's support which I interpret to include childcare facilities. In my presentation to the UCDSB, I stated, "Having a well-established day-care facility like MTJB located within the school walls is a major benefit for the school, the community and most importantly, our children. Thanks to the convenient arrangement, the school aged and kinder children cared for at MTJB are able to transition smoothly into their daily routines, they don't have to get dressed in their outdoor winter clothes when school is over and it's time to go back to day care at the end of the day, they are already comfortable with their surroundings by the time they start kindergarten and above all else, their childcare providers and teachers can work closely together and can collectively manage our children so that their needs are consistently and efficiently met." I noted that the Board did not address this aspect and the fate of MTJB is unknown if Maynard Public School is closed.
My principal takeaway from the Minister's letter is that the current recommendations of the UCDSB on closing Maynard Public School are incomplete in terms of the expectations of the Province, the Ministry of Education and Augusta Township. I ask trustees not to accept the Board's recommendations regarding the future closure of Maynard Public School until all aspects dealt with in the letter are considered