In my six years at Seaway News a recurring story has been the state of rural education in the United Counties of SD&G.
I began at Seaway News in July of 2016. That September, the Catholic and public English language school boards issued their draft Pupil Accommodation Review (PAR) report which called for significant restructuring of schools and student spaces in the region. Schools in Ingleside, Long Sault, Williamstown, Lancaster and even Cornwall were put up on the chopping block for closure.
The issuing of this draft report kicked off a movement, really, and a battle that in many ways continues to this day nearly six years later.
Parents and students rallied together to save their schools. Some, like those at Rothwell-Osnabruck in Ingleside, and Char-Lan in Williamstown were successful in sparing their schools from cuts; others like SJ McLeod were closed, and some, like CCVS and St. Lawrence Secondary School in Cornwall will be closed in the near future as the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) prepares to build a new amalgamated school.
As an observer, I saw this process pit school board administrators and trustees, who were attempting to follow their provincial mandate to meet the requirements of their budgets, against students, parents and local politicians who wanted to keep their schools and their kids in their communities.
Five-and-a-half years later, and this divide is still very much present.
Late last year, the United Counties of SD&G commissioned a report analyzing the state of rural education. The results of this report identified both challenges and assets that rural education is currently facing.
Some of the challenges the report points to include multiple school boards competing for the same pool of students, inconsistent delivery of programming across schools, and administrators viewing education as a business rather than a public service.
The report culminated on Feb. 7 with a symposium hosted by the United Counties of SD&G with speakers who were all veterans in fighting school closures whether they be locally or from other parts of the province and beyond.
Not invited to speak at the symposium were school boards, who were also not asked to provide their own views on rural education in the report commissioned by the Counties.
Now, six years ago, during the PAR process, I was shocked to see so many rural communities that were facing the loss of their local school, and the prospect of seeing their kids riding on the bus for as long as an hour to go to another school in a different community.
That being said, that was then, and this is now. School boards should have been asked for their views in the report, and they should have been invited to speak at the symposium.
“We can’t be on separate sides on how we go forward on rural education,” is what Todd Lalonde, the Chair of the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) told me last week. “But that’s where we are at in this community right now.”
I also understand the school board’s mindset during the PAR process in 2016, even though I didn’t agree with it and still don’t. They are tasked with being financially sustainable, and that really, is what it all comes down to, finances and funding.
Ultimately, the people with the real power to fix rural education are the politicians in Queen’s Park and they are the ones who need to be lobbied to make rural education financially sustainable. The fight to make rural education sustainable and to get the dollars needed to keep rural schools open will require a united front between school boards, municipal governments, and the grassroots movements that have been fighting so hard for their communities. That however, is easier said than done. There will need to be a lot of negotiation I think between trustees, administrators and community organizers to find that much needed common ground.
The fight is not done. Rural education really does have some systemic issues that need to be addressed. Rural schools are vital to their communities. Rural schools are meeting places and economic drivers, not just places of learning. Students shouldn’t spend an hour on the bus to go to a school outside of their community. The rural education report commissioned by the United Counties of SD&G has valuable insights into rural education and should not be left on a shelf somewhere to gather dust.
What do you think of the state of rural education, readers? Email me a Letter to the Editor to email@example.com