This Ontario village is fighting for its school, and probably its way of life

Schools are public assets and therefore belong to communities. Every person in the community should have a say what happens to their school and it cannot be done in 12 weeks. I’m beginning to wonder if government’s have forgotten who they work for. Have they? It sure seems like it when I read “From the township’s perspective, if you’re planning economic development, school is a big option for families. It’s critical. But the ministry of education has told the school boards that ‘You do not consider economic development. It’s not your responsibility. That’s the township’s.’ But when do the townships have a voice in the process?” You know its not hard to know what the right thing to do is when you know who your boss is. Excellent article and 3 videos strongly recommend watching, click here to learn more.

Westmeath Public School will find out at the end shortly whether or not it has a future beyond this school year.

Westmeath Public School will find out shortly as to whether or not it has a future beyond this school year. BRUCE DEACHMAN / OTTAWA CITIZEN

 

At the school's 100th-anniversary reunion in 2006, Westmeath Public School alumni signed a ventilation duct. (Bruce Deachman, Ottawa Citizen)

At the school’s 100th-anniversary reunion in 2006, Westmeath Public School alumni signed a ventilation duct.BRUCE DEACHMAN / OTTAWA CITIZEN

“We as a township are really, really, really working on economic development,” says Hal Johnson, mayor of the Township of Whitewater Region, the area just east of Pembroke that includes the communities of Beachburg, Cobden, Foresters Falls and Westmeath. “And the biggest shock to economic development, in reality, is the closing of a school. Because the next step is that these people will move to a different area.”

Johnson points to the closure of the public school in Foresters Falls as a cautionary tale. In the mid 1970s, after years of debate, the school was closed and its students moved to Ross Mineview School in Haley Station, 20 kilometres away.

“Everything in Foresters Falls kind of died and stayed the same once the school closed,” Johnson says. “We lost businesses, and no one was coming in to make new ones. And that’s our big fear. When you start closing schools, you are affecting every possibility we have of growing the area.”

The issue is awash in numbers, and none as contentious, perhaps, as the occupancy threshold that triggers a review and possible closure. Ministry of Education guidelines set that at 56 per cent — schools that fail to reach it are at risk of being shut down. Westmeath PS’s population of 54, against a maximum accommodation of 219 students, puts its occupancy at just 26 per cent, well below the provincial government’s minimum. But that maximum of 219 includes the portables that supporters of the school say it doesn’t need. If those were eliminated, the school’s occupancy rate would be much closer to 56 per cent. Meanwhile, the school receives ministry grant money for upkeep of the same portables, a Catch-22 and a disincentive to get rid of them.

Additionally, Whitewater Coun. Dave Mackay says he believes a board study indicating the school needs more than $1 million in improvements was pulled out of thin air.

“We had a builder look at it, and he said the things that need to be done could be done for about $200,000. (The board) said we needed a new furnace and boiler, but we had new ones put in in 2012. They said we needed to pave the school’s parking lot.” (Mayor Johnson laughs at the paving notion: “It would be the only thing in Westmeath that’s paved,” he says.)

“We’re country boys,” says Mackay, “but we’re not idiots. It was just a way to get rid of us.”

Less confusing, perhaps, are the real estate numbers, which surely would drop if the school closes.

“It certainly affects the housing market, there’s no doubt about that,” says Les Scott, a Re/Max agent in nearby Pembroke who was also the principal at Calabogie Public School about six years before it closed. “It’s fair to say that if you had a family and were looking to move to that area, and there was no school, that would affect your decision. Absolutely. The closeness to a school is very high on the priorities of anyone with a family with children who is looking to buy.

“In a small village, the school is one of your focal points,” he adds, “and if you’re closing the focal point, that affects the growth of the community.”

For Marie Zettler, Westmeath PS’s possible closure isn’t about numbers, but people. A former columnist with the Cobden Sun, Zettler headed the Westmeath Public School “Save Our School” campaign when it successfully fought the school’s similarly imminent demise in 1977. In each instance, she says, the board tried to peddle the bigger-is-better argument rather than listen to residents’ concerns.

“There’s no recognition of the role the rural community plays in the mosaic of the country,” she insists. “It’s devalued.”

“It’s the choice of most of the parents in this community to have their children educated in this community, but that choice doesn’t count for a hill of beans. We’re not talking about a bunch of livestock filling a feedlot here. We’re talking about the human factor.”

Exacerbating the problem, says Neil Nicholson, a Westmeath resident who has picked up the SOS leadership mantle from Zettler, is a review process that marginalizes smaller schools. Following a number of questionable closings in past years, the ministry a decade ago adopted Policy 15, which governs the process by which a school can be closed. That includes an ARC, or Accommodation Review Committee, chaired by a school board superintendent and including municipal leaders, community organizations and other interested parties from the school’s catchment area. That committee completes an analysis of the problem and comes back to the school board with a recommendation.

“It’s a six-month process,” says Nicholson, “but it costs the school board a lot of money and time. So what the province has recently done is allowed a modified accommodation review to take place. It’s a 12-week process, with no ARC and just one public meeting for input from the community. A recommendation is then made to the board.”

There are a number of criteria a school has to meet to be relegated to a modified review — the building’s age, distance from another school and occupancy rate, for example. Almost every small rural school, Nicholson say, meets that criteria.

“From the township’s perspective, if you’re planning economic development, school is a big option for families. It’s critical. But the ministry of education has told the school boards that ‘You do not consider economic development. It’s not your responsibility. That’s the township’s.’ But when do the townships have a voice in the process?

“I realize it is not a school board’s responsibility to worry about economic development or the future viability of a community or township, but their decision to close a rural school and their power to impact the future of this community is significant,” he adds. “I find it irresponsible of our higher government to delegate this decision to just the school board. It needs to be a collaborate planning process.”

The plight of students and parents at Westmeath PS is, of course, countered on the board’s side with declining enrolment and funding squeezes. Shields said that while his mind isn’t yet made up, “it makes sense to go with the ministry guidelines” for the shorter review period.

“We could stretch this out for years if we really wanted to, but they have these guidelines in place and we should get on with our business.”

Among the board’s interests is offering the greatest services to students for the least cost, and Beachburg’s public school has facilities that Westmeath doesn’t, including a gymnasium and much larger library. But as opponents to Westmeath’s closure point out, a library may not be the essential service it was in, say, the 1980s, before the Internet, while Westmeath’s massive schoolyard helps address its lack of a gym.

Last Monday, Nicholson and other Westmeathians had their say at a public meeting attended by school board representatives, where 10 residents each made a maximum-allotted 15-minute pitch to save their school. Mackay says it went well, and he’s optimistic the school will be spared. They’ll know in a week’s time, on Tuesday, when the board announces its decision.

“The Westmeath group has worked very hard,” says Shields, who points out that his father attended Westmeath, making this an emotional decision for him as well. “They’ve done an outstanding job of getting their point across, and the trustees will now spend the weekend going over it and forming their own opinion. I don’t think any of us has a solid decision made yet. I want to hear what other people are thinking.”

But he adds he’ll support the board’s decision, no matter which way it goes. “We have to be realistic about the amount of money the board has,” he says. “Beachburg isn’t that far — 12 kilometres. And kids are resilient; they’ll adapt if they have to.”

But for Mayor Johnson, Tuesday’s decision from the school board is crucial to the fate of the Whitewater region. “We’re fighting for our way of life here,” he says, “and by closing our schools, the next thing they’ll close are the arenas. And then Kenny’s store will be gone. That’s devastating to this area. We want to try to do something different. We need change and lots of it. We can’t continue to forget the rural areas.”

 

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