Rural values dominate meeting on future of Leeds-Grenville schools

Allison Easton of the group to save Pineview Public School in Athens speaks to the Upper Canada District School Board's Accommodation Review Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 15 ,2016 in Prescott, Ont. Roughly 350 people were at the public meeting at Grenville District High School. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

PRESCOTT – From alternative proposals to impassioned pleas, parents across Leeds-Grenville spoke to the region’s accommodation review committee Tuesday night on why their schools should be saved.

A common theme was about respecting and appreciating the rural way of life and rural values.

The Upper Canada District School Board is looking to consolidate and close up to 29 schools across Eastern Ontario as it tries to reduce the nearly 10,000 empty classroom seats – seats that are not getting as much funding from the province anymore.

Roughly 350 people were at the the South Grenville District High School Tuesday night to hear 11 presentations from Athens, Brockville and Grenville parents.

Jaunni Snyder from Toniata Public School was the first at the podium. She argued the already high-capacity Brockville school has better amenities and was in a better location than the downtown Commonwealth Public School, where students would be headed if the UCDSB closed Toniata under its proposal.

Snyder took issue with the board’s assessment of school accessibility, saying a proper audit has not been carried out on all Brockville schools.

When questioned by ARC committee member Tara Bondi why Commonwealth should be kept open and Prince of Wales P.S. should close when Commonwealth’s neighbour, the Brockville General Hospital, will expand in the future, Snyder conceded the reason was really about “first blood” and trying to save one school.

In South Grenville, Temple Heidecker spoke about saving South Edwardsburgh Public School. “Our rural values (need to) be respected,” Heidecker said. “Children feel safe in the community they live in.”

She called it a “travesty” that the board review didn’t include potentially 300 families moving to the area from future economic development like the nearby Johnstown Giant Tiger distribution center.

Allison Easton of SOS Pineview — a mother of two autistic children – explained how the school is an integral part of the community and many activities are within walking distance of Pineview. The children walked to the cenotaph on Remembrance Day, she said.

Easton said the cost would be “very high” to accommodate 59 Pinewood children at other schools who have various behavioural needs, including those with spectrum disorders.

Easton said, after her divorce, she decided to stay in Athens “purely for the school” because the rural education setting was important.

Krista Landon and Michelle Nel from Maynard Public School speak to the UCDSB Accommodation Review Committee during a public meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15 ,2016 in Prescott, Ont. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

Brigitte Reid and Krista Landon from Maynard Public School speak to the UCDSB Accommodation Review Committee during a public meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15 ,2016 in Prescott, Ont. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

Brigitte Reid and Krista Landon from Maynard Public School said Augusta Township has already suffered with the loss of three schools in the past. “Maynard is all we have left,” Reid said. They also spoke about the importance of rural schools for farm families.

With bus rides already reaching one hour, Reid says kids having to go to a Prescott schools, especially in bad weather, will end up in 90-plus minute rides.

“The school is the heart of our community,” Donna Gladstone, a volunteer and parent at Benson Public School. Gladstone said the population at Benson has ballooned from 43 students in 2012 to 75 in 2016 and the school has a special relationship with Cardinal Power and Ingredion. Her presentation was punctuated with the phrase “free heat” noting the special arrangement the school has with Cardinal Power Of Canada LP, the electrical plant. Students also go to nearby Ingredion Center to learn skating, she told the ARC.

During the delegations, a number of alternative proposals were put to the ARC to reduce costs for operating schools. Those included installing solar panels to reduce electricity costs and, in the case of Westminster Public School, having other agencies such as police and EMS share space in the school building.

Some delegations of schools slated for closure asked the school board to wait five years before the next provincially-mandated review of schools to give them a chance to make improvements. In the case of Benson Public School, Donna Gladstone said they wanted to boost their student roll to 150 over that time.

The recommendations will be included in a final report to the board in February 2017 before the board makes its final decision in March 2017.

The next ARC meeting is tomorrow (Wednesday, Nov. 16) for the Rideau and Lanark Schools in Perth at the local high school.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, the Dundas schools ARC meeting will happen at Seaway District High School in Iroquois.

All meetings start at 6:30 p.m.

Correction: This story has been corrected from an earlier version to reflect a change in speakers for Maynard Public School and the order of those speakers.

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