“We will not make everyone happy”

2008-09 school populations
Source: AMDSB.ca
Zurich – 148 (110% of capacity of 135)
Exeter – 303 (74% of capacity of 409)
Stephen – 171 (68% of capacity of 250)
Hensall – 152 (58% of capacity of 262)
Usborne – 117 (52% of capacity of 227)

ARC-UsborneMeeting-0037Avon-Maitland District School Board superintendent of operations Mike Ash is the chair of the Accommodation Review Committee examining which schools should close in South Huron and Bluewater. The contentious decision will be made this summer, and may see one or more local communities lose their schools. The committee, consisting of school and community representatives, meets every few weeks to discuss the options and present their suggestions.

As told to Casey Lessard

Any accommodation review is a difficult process for the community. It’s also difficult for the trustees and the board staff as we consider these decisions. At the end of the day, we as a board have to be able to demonstrate that we are using the tax dollars we receive in a fiscally responsible fashion. If there are ways we can use the grant dollars we get, we need to do that. Duplication between schools can be questioned as an effective use of revenue.
More important to us, though, is being able to provide an effective quality program. Our belief based on our experiences is that we need to have a sufficient number of students in a building to allow us to prevent triple-grade classes as a minimum. This can also allow us flexibility in timetabling to minimize the number of double-grade classes, and provide options to students to be in a straight-grade class or a split-grade class. We also believe that there should be a sufficient number of classes so that you have more than one teacher in a particular division so those teachers can collaborate and learn from each other in terms of best teaching practices and improve the learning environment. As schools get smaller, it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve that level of staffing to allow for that dialogue to occur or to provide that flexibility in terms of timetabling.
Based on enrolment projections, the board has done some difficult work to consolidate the schools so we will have a stable, viable school system going forward. The enrolment in our area is projected to plateau and then rise a little bit. That increase in school age children will be very small. If we can come up with a consolidated group of schools in South Huron now, that will serve the needs of students for 10-15 years, if not longer.
Last year, we did a formal accommodation review with the Usborne school committee. At the end of that process, the trustees deferred a decision on the future of Usborne Central PS pending a review of all of the schools in the South Huron area.
The five elementary schools that feed into South Huron District High School were identified as having about 400 empty spaces in their schools. In addition to that, we have a couple of schools that have fewer than 150 students. The combination of the empty spaces, plus a significant number of spaces in SHDHS has prompted the staff to recommend that we look at the accommodation in that area.
Staff and the community have presented a number of options. The preferred option from the board staff includes both the closure of Usborne Central PS and either Hensall PS or Zurich PS, and then the redistribution of students from those schools to the remaining schools. At the last two meetings, we’ve also presented and discussed the closure of Stephen Central PS, and a configuration that would see two of the five schools close with the remaining schools operating as K-8. In the other scenarios, we were presenting Grades 7 and 8 at the high school. Friends of Hensall PS have presented the idea of closing Exeter PS and merging it with the high school through an addition to create a K-12 school. That would address excess capacity, but it wouldn’t address program delivery issues that would be present at the other schools that have small populations and small staffs.
Closing Exeter is a viable option for discussion. The concern with that is: where do the capital dollars come from to build the addition onto South Huron DHS? That money ultimately has to come from the Ministry of Education of the Province of Ontario. In our dialogue with the ministry financial folks, they only become interested in capital funding when it meets certain criteria. At this point in time, those criteria would require the closure of at least three schools to create a school in the order of at least 500 students. Any plan would have to include the use of any other excess capacity in the area under review, so that would include the secondary school. The ministry probably won’t provide capital to the board unless the community is on side with how that capital will be used.
The reality is that schools that are smaller than 500 aren’t self-sustainable in terms of the funding mechanism that is currently in place. In a district like ours, the schools that are 350 or 400 students are actually subsidizing the smaller schools. When a trustee looks at the equitable distribution of funding across the board, that is a concern. Should the smaller schools be subsidized by larger classes in larger schools?

Certainly the board trustees and staff are aware that closing a school is traumatic and has an effect on the community. Unfortunately, when we start weighing that impact, which is speculative, with the reality that we have to provide a program for our students today and balance our budget today, the program issues and the board’s financial picture will carry more weight than the impact on the community. Ultimately, we are charged with providing a quality education for our students, and their needs come first.
Quality of life is also a concern. Usborne and Stephen Central are both fully bused now. Any changes in the location of where those students would attend in the case of Usborne would actually reduce the bus ride for those students because the buses are run in conjunction with the secondary school and they stop there before going to Usborne. If the Usborne students were relocated to Exeter, they would have a shorter bus ride. If Hensall were to close, we would be putting a group of students who do not currently ride the bus, depending on where they live, on a bus ride ranging between 30 and 60 minutes per day. It’s a similar situation in Zurich. We do take that into account, and as we plan our bus routes, we make them an hour or less wherever possible.

It is not a done deal (i.e. the end result is not predetermined). The trustees make the decision. Staff and the ARC make recommendations; staff need to make their recommendations based on the ARC’s recommendations, so until they make that decision, the staff is listening. Then the trustees will consider all of the information and make a decision in June.
The timeframe for the ARC deliberations has been sufficient based on others in the past. One of the challenges for the members of the ARC is to keep focused on their mandate. The recommendations to the trustees don’t have to be accurate to the penny in terms of potential capital costs or changes in costs for the board, but they do have to give trustees a picture of what the community would like to see in terms of a school configuration for the next 10-15 years.

We know that when we go into this process that we will not make everyone happy. We focus on the core issues. For the school board, they are the delivery of program and ensuring we’re using our financial resources most efficiently and effectively. At the same time, we want to wherever possible address the concerns of the community while ensuring a quality program.

The next public meeting is at Hensall PS February 4, followed by one at Stephen Central PS February 25. The ARC will make its recommendations at a meeting March 4. Staff will report in April, and the trustees are currently scheduled to decide at a meeting June 22. The board typically ensures at least one year for transition, so changes would not be implemented until September 2011.