Monday, July 28, 2014

Trustees spare district schools

Rainy River District School Board trustees voted unanimously to keep Crossroads, Sturgeon Creek, and Donald Young Schools open—contrary to senior administration’s recommendation to consolidate the three—at their regular board meeting last night.
They also agreed to pursue building a new Donald Young School on its existing site in Emo, contingent on Ministry of Education capital funding approval, due to the school’s “prohibitive-to-repair” status deemed back in 2003.

The future of these schools had been up for review since June, 2011 when concerns about declining enrolment and surplus capacity, facility condition, and loss of funding for small schools were brought forward.
Accommodation reviews were held at the three schools over the past two years, with each committee recommending their respective schools remain open.
And while this sentiment was expressed by trustees during a committee of the whole meeting last month, the decision wasn’t final until last night’s vote.
“[Elementary schools] are about students, families, communities, and a sense of belonging,” stressed board chair Mike Lewis.
“We have our number-one goal—student achievement and well-being,” he added.
“There is no evidence presented in my mind that suggests student achievement and well-being are enhanced in a consolidated school.
“I believe ownership of a school by a community, and families who send their children to that school, are very significant in helping to determine how well students achieve and how positive they feel about their well-being,” Lewis remarked.
He also indicated that looking at the projections for the next 10 years, Crossroads and Donald Young Schools show a relatively steady enrolment.
While Sturgeon Creek’s decline in enrolment is more pronounced, he said it’s not enough to inhibit the viability of the school.
“The viability of all three schools, in my opinion, are not in jeopardy,” Lewis said. “For me, it’s about what’s best for the kids given the current circumstances.
“I do not believe the current circumstances dictate a consolidated school would be the best solution.”
Trustee David Kircher also supported keeping the three schools open.
“Financial analysis of all the possible options and actions did not, in my opinion, provide a clear direction for the decision now contemplated by the board,” he remarked.
With no material difference, it lends it’s support to maintaining the status quo, he reasoned.
Kircher also cited student transportation and minimizing ride times for the students as a reason for his decision.
“We must consider and try to accommodate all students, staff, and school communities in this discussion and decision,” he noted.
“The option of keeping all three schools open satisfies this decision.”
Kircher also recommended a new Donald Young School be built to meet current and projected enrolment, suggesting it be built and situated to allow for future accommodation of additional students.
“Let’s build today but plan for tomorrow,” he stressed.
Trustee Dianne McCormack said she understands the motivation behind administration’s analysis and concerns about being about to continue to provide the best programming possible, especially for students with additional needs.
She admitted she has her own concerns in the area, saying she would never want to see a child left behind because they were not provided with the resources.
But McCormack also thinks the same challenges are being seen across the district because of declining enrolment.
“I have great confidence in all of our employees, administration, and staff at our schools, that they are working in the best interest of our students,” she remarked.
“And facing the realities that we are right now, economically . . . we need to be creative and innovative.
“The schools that we looked at in this process clearly are meeting the needs of our students right now and that, along with the other considerations that came across loud and clear, I can’t in good conscience think of closing those schools,” she added.
“They are viable and I hope they continue to be viable for years to come.”
Trustee Marg Heyens spoke about the schools being rural schools, not under-utilized.
“We are fortunate to live in this area, with fishing, hunting, camping at our back doors,” she noted.
“Farms are scattered throughout the area, mining spots are also looking promising, so to close our few rural schools makes no sense.
“If the schools are 20 miles apart, that doesn’t mean the students are living 20 minutes away—they live all over the area,” Heyens argued.
“Some children travel an hour on the bus to school. Many are young children and that’s too long.
“These schools are not one-room size anymore,” Heyens added. “They are a good size for rural schools, and have good teachers and many good programs.
“I really think these schools should be left open for now.”
“The involvement within these community-based schools is impressive and needs recognition,” echoed trustee Ralph Hill.
He noted they are functioning extremely well and that any operating cost-saving within the proposed consolidation model does not justify a change at this time.
Meanwhile, trustees Earl Klyne and Dan Belluz noted they had not changed their opinion from what they shared at last month’s committee of the whole meeting, which was that they adamantly disagreed with the proposed consolidation.
While keeping the three schools open and providing continued maintenance will mean the loss of rural school funding, the trustees reiterated their commitment to the students and will look for the best ways to spend their money.
They also will apply for the capital funding from the Ministry of Education in the fall to build a new Donald Young School.

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