OSCVIBy Jon Farmer
More than one hundred people gathered in the OSCVI auditorium on Thursday, February 11th for the final community consultation meeting in the Bluewater District School Board's Owen Sound area schools accommodation review. Parents, teachers, administrators, and students presented their perspectives, preferences, and concerns for what promises to be a difficult decision. Many area schools are operating under capacity and in need of upgrades and repairs. With the current facilities and enrollment levels, Bluewater District School Board (BWDSB) is facing close to a $350,000 deficit for the 2016-2017 school year and must close schools to increase utilization rates and reduce the budget shortfall.

As the board considers which schools to close and where the remaining students will be sent, different interest groups have emerged. The diversity of community opinion was clearly on display Thursday as BWDSB representatives explained the options currently on the table and different delegations took the microphone to lobby their causes.

Jean Stephenson –Superintendent of Education – opened the evening, welcoming the audience and thanking the 55 accommodation review committee members for their work. After the previous meeting's minutes were approved the challenges and considerations were quickly laid on the table. The key issues break down along three main questions: what to do with the Owen Sound high schools, how to accommodate French immersion, and what to do about Derby.

The night's most impassioned presentations were made by parents from Derby Public School. A 2013 accommodation review explored the possibility of closing Derby but strong community mobilization pressed to keep it open. That process concluded with the decision to give the school 5 more years but following a school board vote to repeal that motion in 2015, Derby was included in the current process after fewer than 3 years. Derby's inclusion in this review and the reversal of the previous decision has sown seeds of distrust among the parents who mobilized to keep the school open in 2013.

A school becomes the nucleus for its community and on Thursday Derby advocates spoke repeatedly about the fear of losing that anchor. Julie Gorman – mother of a Derby student – heatedly compared the relationship between Derby parents and the BWDSB to a crumbling marriage. She claimed that "trustees have become glorified rubber stampers" and urged the board to leave Derby open for another year to honour their word and ease the transition for students and families. Kim Scott – another Derby mother – supported a slow shifting of Derby students to Arran-Tara to keep the community together. Ryan Spencer – a Derby father and alumni – spoke at length about Derby's special connection to agriculture and the potential to expand students' understanding of food production and climate change by constructing a new, larger rural school in Kilsyth.

At the beginning of the accommodation review process the BWDSB proposed closing Derby, Bayview, and Dufferin public schools which will require the rearrangement of elementary and intermediate students. The initial proposal called for both West Hill and OSCVI to accept students in grades 7-12. Subsequent community proposals have suggested that a single Owen Sound high school would be preferable. Advocates of the single high school solution expressed concern over mixing grade 7 and 8 students into high school settings and pointed out that larger high schools can offer more diverse programming. Under the single high school proposals West Hill Secondary School would remain while OSCVI would be retrofitted as a JK-8 school. Dave Kuhl – father of West Hill students – said that the goal should be "optimizing for student success" and cited West Hill as the natural destination with its more extensive technology infrastructure. Despite West Hill's age, it has more specialized shops including metal working and automotive facilities. OSCVI does not have an automotive shop space and relied on Georgian College facilities for metal fabrication until a few years ago when the college's growing population pushed out the high school class. However, Thursday's audience also heard from OSCVI music teacher Tim Eaton who pointed out that the OSCVI auditorium offers unique resources for arts programming.

Delegations of students and teachers from OSCVI explained their support for the two 7-12 school solution. The reasons varied from simple appeals to history and location, to the flexibility of course offerings that become possible with two buildings and coordinated time tabling. They were critical of the single high school proposal, partly because the projected enrolment levels for secondary students would exceed available spaces at West Hill. The single high school option creates specific challenges to facility use and eliminates the possibility of out of boundary students attending Owen Sound area schools for desired courses. Currently, students from other areas within the board can attend Owen Sound area schools if the school population allows and the student can arrange transportation. A single high school operating at capacity would remove that possibility. Multiple delegates suggested that students will simply move to the co-terminus board if the courses they need are not available in conveniently located BWDSB schools.

The importance of community cohesion emerged again as various delegates brought up the issue of French Immersion education. Under the board's initial proposal, West Hill would continue to receive all secondary French Immersion students. French Immersion is currently offered at Sydenham, Hillcrest, and West Hill. However, French Immersion students graduating from Sydenham are forced to choose between pursuing French Immersion and following their English friends to a more conveniently located school. Delegates offered the costs and benefits of multiple transitions for students, the possibility of offering French Immersion in every school, and the potential to shift French Immersion to OSCVI to balance the high school populations.

Language options and course offerings are only some of the many factors the review must consider as the Owen Sound area schools' logistical operations shift to accommodate redistribution and declining enrolment. Catchment areas, bussing, and staffing will all be affected. There is no question that each school carries important history and serves a role within the community but in the contest between social utility, declining enrolments, aging infrastructure, and impending deficits the bottom lines appears to be drawn in red ink.

The preliminary final staff report to committee of the whole board will be tabled March 1. A Special board meeting for accommodation review delegations will be held March 23rd in Chesley and interested delegates must register by March 9th. The final staff report will be delivered April 12 and a final decision will be made April 19th. After gathering input for months, the board will soon be making a decision that its representatives have acknowledged will impact the lives of young families across the region.

"We have listened and will continue to. We recognize that the current configuration is unsustainable. Change is about to happen; we know it has to happen," Stephenson told the audience in closing.

Speaking directly to the parents, teachers, and committee members gathered, she added "we hope that whatever the outcome, we can count on your support to make sure the transition is as clean as possible for the students".

Somewhere among the varied and passionate opinions presented on Thursday is a compromise and the details of the final report will show which considerations and arguments weighed most heavily. For parents like Julie Gorman of Derby the board's reputation is also on the table. "If I see that [initial] recommendation I'll know they didn't listen," she said after the meeting.

All reports from delegates will soon be available on the BWDSB website.



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