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SERA joins fight against school closures

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SERA joins fight against school closures

JOHNSTOWN - The Upper Canada District School Board is already getting a furious push back against its plans to close many local rural schools, including South Edwardsburg Public School (SEPS) in Johnstown, and now the South Edwardsburgh Recreation Association has joined the fight.

The South Edwardsburgh Recreation Association (SERA) has been around for decades, spearheading and participating in community-building efforts throughout Johnstown since the late 1960s. Several years ago, the group was close to folding, but since then it has experienced a renaissance, with the infusion of many new and enthusiastic members. With a roster of more than 40 local residents, SERA is in a good position to represent the views of the community it serves, and the group is putting its full weight behind efforts to keep South Edwardsburg Public School open.

A regular meeting of SERA last week featured a presentation by SERA member Temple Heidecker and Elizabeth Knapp, a member of SERA and also a representative of the SEPS Parent Council, both of whom outlined a strong case for taking the local school off the list of potential closures.

According to a report - specifically a pupil accommodation review entitled 'Building for the Future' -prepared by staff of the Upper Canada District School Board, the plan is to close both South Edwardsburg Public School and Maynard Public School and move their students into an expanded Wellington Public School in Prescott. This plan, however, is entirely contingent on the province agreeing to fund Wellington's expansion. The report also recommended that Benson Public School in Cardinal close at the end of this school year, and its students be moved to South Edwardsburg.

Neither of these options is sitting well with local residents, which is why Knapp and Heidecker were hoping they would be given standing to present their case at a public meeting last Tuesday night in Prescott. The meeting is one of many throughout the region organized and hosted by the board's Accommodation Review Committees (ARC) to provide opportunities for public consultation. Two such meetings will take place in this jurisdiction, the one Tuesday, November 15, at South Grenville District High School and another at Brockville's BCI in January.

"Now is not the time to close SEPS," said Heidecker at last weeks' SERA meeting, reading an excerpt of the presentation she hoped to give at the ARC meeting. "Now is the time to prepare for a resurgence of growth in this area."

One of the best arguments against closing SEPS, according to SERA, is the promise of considerable growth in the Township of Edwardsburgh-Cardinal in the coming years.

"Now is not the time," said Robert Dalley, a member of SERA and manager of the Port of Johnstown. "We're growing."

Also at SERA's meeting was the mayor of Edwardsburgh-Cardinal, Pat Sayeau, who made clear his opposition not only to the closure of SEPS, and Benson, but also to the process by which these recommendations were made to the school board.

"You should all be totally incensed by the process you're being put through," said the mayor, taking particular exception to the way the public meetings are being managed.

The school board hosts the meetings, which are moderated by a board member, and the superintendents decide who will be permitted to speak at these meetings and who will not. Such was also the case at a recent meeting called by the board to which local elected officials were invited. Unfortunately, the mayors and councilors of affected communities were not permitted to speak but were invited as observers only. That didn't stop many local officials, Sayeau among them, from speaking up anyway.

"The administration is controlling this very, very tightly, and they're not feeling the pressure they should be," said Sayeau at last week's SERA meeting. "I find that totally abhorrent."

The mayor agreed with those around the table that closing SEPS now, on the cusp of a commercial and industrial revival in the township, would be unwise.

"There are things happening in Edwardsburgh-Cardinal. We're going to have another big announcement at the end of the month," said Sayeau, noting both a major development by Giant Tiger currently under construction in the township's industrial park and hinting at a new development to come.

With growth in the job market will come growth in population, and, said the mayor, to close the community's schools in the midst of these positive changes would be a mistake.

"We're going to be attracting young people and families to this area. If there is no school, they're going to look elsewhere," said Sayeau. "That guts your whole community."

Unfortunately, and inexplicably to those at the SERA meeting, the school board does not take such macro factors into consideration when making its decisions on school closures. Nevertheless, SEPS boosters have other arrows in their quiver, and have found particular fault with the enrollment figures upon which the closure recommendation was based.

"We are an expanding community," said the mayor. "We don't think their projections for five to seven years out are at all accurate."

According to figures provided by Knapp, South Edwardsburg Public School is home to 78 children this year. The school's capacity is 210. Next year, though, enrollment is estimated to be up to 94.

"We are one of the only schools to have an increase in projected enrollment," said Heidecker.

Those around the table also thought it disingenuous of the board to be closing rural schools as a result of low enrollment after it removed all the grade seven and eight students from those schools as part of 2009's Boundary 20/20 realignment and then instituted French Immersion at only select schools around the jurisdiction, including at Prescott's Wellington Public School, which further diminished the enrollment in neighbouring schools.

"They gutted the schools by removing grades seven and eight, so they should give the schools a chance to rebuild," said Sayeau.

Another problem highlighted by Heidecker and Knapp was a decision by the provincial government to end a program that provided extra funding for small rural schools. That funding will dry up at the end of this school year. MPP Steve Clark and his colleagues at Queen's Park are doing all they can to convince the Ontario government to reverse that decision, but regardless of the outcome of that effort, the case for South Edwardsburg Public School remains strong.

Knapp noted that another of the reasons the UCDSB gives for closing certain schools is maintenance costs, which are measured by facility cost index. Some of the schools slated for closure have index scores well in excess of 100 but SEPS comes in at 51.

"We have a lot of good arguments," said Knapp. "We're not just going there demanding they keep the school open."

In addition to presenting their case at the ARC meeting, the parent council has also sent around a bright orange flyer that should have appeared in the mailboxes of residents in and around Johnstown last week. At the bottom is a slip that can be signed and detached, with or without comments, and dropped off at the Bayview Convenience Store and MacEwen gas station in Johnstown. These forms will be delivered to the school board, hopefully by the bag full on November 30, so anyone who wants their voice heard should get the form into the store as soon as possible.

Knapp also encourages people to make their opinions known on the UCDSB's website, where there is a survey asking for community input on the pupil accommodation review process. This survey can be accessed also by a link on the SERA Facebook page. Short of either of these two options, residents can simply call up their trustee and try to make their views known that way.

The trustee for this area - Ward 6 - is Lisa Swan, who actually voted against the recommendations of the Pupil Accommodation Review and then subsequently voted for the motion to rescind approval of the recommendations, though she was on the losing side of both votes.

The board doesn't make its final decision on what recommendations it will adopt and which it won't until the end of March, so there is still time for residents opposed to the closure of South Edwardsburgh Public School to make sure that decision-makers are aware of the opposition.

"Just because the public meeting in Prescott is done, doesn't mean it's over," said Knapp. "It's not over until the board votes."

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