SOUTH DUNDAS – In November 2021, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry adopted its rural education report, which offered 10 recommendations for improving rural education in the county, and in Ontario. Some of the recommendations caused controversy like calling to reorganize the four school systems into two, one French and one English.
Local member of provincial Parliament, Jim McDonell, said the report, which he encouraged the Counties to undertake, had some interesting recommendations.
“Education is the future of this area, and for the country. If you are going to have a vibrant county area, it involves parents having faith in local schools,” McDonell said. “People want to make sure their children have all the advantages that are possible and as a provincial government, that is key. The future of this province depends on a qualified, competitive workforce, and that means having that education.”
On consolidating or reorganizing the schools systems on linguistic lines, McDonell called that a “bridge too far.”
“Constitutionally [Catholic education] is guaranteed, and yes some provinces have gotten rid of it. That’s fine, but that’s not somewhere we’re going today in Ontario,” he explained.
McDonell addressed the issue of advertising and competition between school boards. One example presented by SDG Counties was where free Chrome-books were offered as an enrolment incentive.
“There’s a lot of money being spent advertising four school boards,” he said. “Maybe there is a better way of identifying all the registrations and sharing costs.”
McDonell said the incentives point a funding issue.
“We have to look at funding for different areas and [Eastern Ontario] is extremely different than most others.”
He cited the larger demand for French-Public and French-Catholic education in the area, which is disproportionate to many other areas of Ontario.
“Locally this is an issue, maybe not provincially. The extra funding allows different perks. But let’s look at the numbers and let’s be fair.”
The MPP identified transportation as one of the biggest issues facing education and a key point from the Counties’ recommendations.
“We’re busing kids from Laggan and Dunvegan to Cornwall. That’s why rural schools aren’t able to offer some of the programs that they need,” he said.
McDonell asked why large schools in the county are not being used to offer programming, instead of transporting students long distance.
“If you need to separate and put two boards in one building, do it,” he said adding it did not make sense to keep busing students and triggering new school projects and closing old schools that are in good shape.
He offered that sharing buildings in rural areas would increase opportunities for more access to in-person classes.
“That would keep the schools in rural areas instead of narrowing it down to just a few big schools in the city,” McDonell said. “So let’s talk about it and do something that makes sense. Maybe COVID, with the cost impact on education, will make us do that. We can’t continue to build new schools and close old ones.”
McDonell agreed with the Counties’ recommendation to offer more French language learning in schools, and that it would address some of the transportation issues as well.
“I think it’s high time that Ontario provides for more people the opportunity to lead this country,” he opined. “Everyone knows you can’t be a leader in this country if you can’t speak French. It’s important so let’s get on board. That means getting serious. That means providing the education, and we can do that.”
McDonell said that French language education is a priority for parents.
“We know the current system is not working, and not having enough students to offer these core courses in person in some schools is very unfortunate.”
Seeing this as a competitive issue between schools, he agreed there should be a review of French services, with an eye to expanding them.
McDonell also identified daycare spaces as a challenge, especially in English-language school boards.
“We’re doing everything we can,” he said. “As schools apply [for daycare spaces] we are rolling that out. There’s no question it takes time.”
He said he is looking forward to an eventual agreement between the provincial and federal governments on $10 per day daycare and that will also address some of the daycare issues.
One recommendation by the Counties was improving Internet service and McDonell defended recent announcements by the Ford government to expand high speed service in the last year.
“We’ve put in place by February 2022 that every area [of Ontario] will have a contract out to expand Internet service. The end result is by 2025, all Ontarians will have access to high speed Internet.”
He closed his comments speaking about the transparency of school boards, which was another recommendation by the Counties that needed improvement.
“There are some changes to be made on transparency,” he said. “School boards still have privacy concerns to follow. [Boards] have many challenges, but the secrecy of some of the numbers is something the government will have to look at.”
McDonell is finishing out his final term of office as MPP, having announced his retirement in November. At the time of his interview with The Leader, SDG Counties had not formally announced its rural education conference, now scheduled for February 3, 2022.
This article was originally written for and appeared in The Morrisburg Leader.