The text of Community Schools Alliance Chair Doug Reycraft's comments to the Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter at the Rural Ontario Municipal Conference in January.

Madam Minister, on behalf of the executive committee of the Community Schools Alliance, which includes the mayors of Frontenac Islands and Georgian Bluffs, Mayor Doyle and Mayor Barfoot, who both requested an opportunity to speak with you during the conference, I thank you and your staff for offering us this meeting.

We are here today to add our voice to the students, parents, school councils, municipalities, and MPP's who have urged you to implement a moratorium on accommodation reviews and school closures until an education funding formula and a Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline that recognize the needs of rural Ontario are in place.

Our members include municipalities from all regions of the province and we've been getting frantic phone calls and emails from  many regions for several months, as I expect your office has. The issue is the huge number of schools under review by schools boards and recommended for closure. The total number of such schools is often reported to be over 600 and, while we haven't been able to identify the number that are actually rural and remote, we know that many are in single-school communities and we are particularly concerned about those.

We have heard you say on a number of occasions that you realize a school is the heart of its community. We agree with you! But to extend the analogy, we believe that just as removing the heart causes the body to die, so removing a community's only school has dire implications for the community's future.

When the only school in a small town or village is closed, the consequences for the students and the community are profound. And they are much different than in a city or large town where the nearest school may be only ten minutes away.

Children and youth who have been accustomed to walking to their local school are forced to take a bus to a different school in a different community; bus rides for others are suddenly longer. It's difficult to argue that longer bus rides will have anything other than a negative effect on students' mental and physical health. Children and youth who are moved to a school in a different community won't get to know their own community. It is more difficult and perhaps impossible to be involved in after-school extracurricular sports, clubs and other activities. For secondary students, the bus ride home may eliminate the option of a part-time job. And they are disconnected from their local community.

A community that loses its only school is suddenly faced with a great risk of both economic and demographic decline. Families are less likely to buy a home in a small town or village that has no school. Families already in a community whose only school is closed are very likely to move elsewhere. Even if the family stays in the community after the school closes, the children who are bused to another location are less likely to settle in their home community. The population of the community is likely to decline. The loss of families combined with the loss of the economic spin-offs that a local school generates combine to start a downward spiral in the economic vitality of the centre.

While it is possible to provide anecdotal evidence to support the claims of negative economic consequences of school closures in single-school communities, there appears to be a significant dearth of evidence-based research within an Ontario context. For that reason the Community Schools Alliance has commissioned research on the subject. We received a discussion paper on the research yesterday and hope to see a report before fall.

Many of these small towns and villages with a single school have served for years as social and service hubs of rural life and will continue to do so as long as their future viability is supported by a school that serves their children and youth and is an attraction for young families. A concurrent workshop just this morning described how many are "ideally situated, in the rural context, to meet many of the province's wider policy objectives, including affordable housing, ageing in place, and walkability".

About a week ago, I went to the Facebook page of the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures and invited readers from single-school communities whose only school was subject to a review and recommended for closure to advise me of the names of the community and the school. Within hours I received over 35 comments from communities such as Markdale, Springfield, Paisley, Chesley, Maxville, Glengarry County, Augusta, Tay Valley, Thedford, South Dundas, and many, many more.

It appears that this explosion of reviews and proposed closures is a result of two initiatives by the Ministry of Education: phased-in changes to the Grant for Student Needs starting in 2014-15 and a revised version of the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline released in March of 2015.

One of the changes to the GSN was a strategy called School Board Efficiencies and Modernization that was "to provide incentives and supports for boards to make more efficient use of school space". That appears to be resulting in many small rural schools being subjected to review not because they have surplus space but just because they are small. Closing them and consolidating the students with another school(s) results in what education administrators believe will be a larger, "more efficient" school.

The changes to the PARG resulted in a streamlined process with fewer meetings, tighter timelines and the elimination of the consideration of the value of a school to its community and the local economy.

The negative impacts of school closures in single-school communities have been articulated to the ministry and school boards by municipalities for several years. There is a growing perception in rural and northern Ontario that either the provincial government doesn't believe us when we describe those impacts or it just doesn't care!

We need to press the pause button on accommodation reviews and closures while a better system is devised.





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