“If bigger is better, back it up.”
That was one of the messages the provincial government heard as about 100 people from across southern Ontario, including Bothwell and Ridgetown, came to talk about rural schools. The Thedford forum was billed as a time to “discuss and share ideas about how to best address the unique needs and challenges that rural and remote communities face.”
Northumberland Quinte-West Liberal MPP Lou Rinaldi hosted the forum saying school boards across the province are struggling with declining enrolment and empty schools. In the Lambton-Kent district alone there are about 10,000 empty places in the classroom. There are about 55,000 across the province.
That’s lead to wave after wave of school closures with local school boards saying the way the province provides funding is forcing their hands.
In this region, smaller schools like Dawn-Euphemia School, Zone Township Central School in Bothwell, and Lambton Kent Composite School in Dresden have all been listed in reports suggesting closures in the future.
Aberarder Central School is one of six local schools merging into a junior kindergarten to Grade 12 school.
Residents around Wyoming will watch South Plympton close at the end of this school year as students head to Wyoming for classes.
Speaker after speaker told consultants that while they want their children to get a good education they don’t need “all the bells and whistles” as Susan Litwin of Highgate says.
“The system should not be so rigid that they (the school boards) can’t look at smaller community schools,” says Litwin. “No one size fits all.
“We want a core program that suits the student’s needs… and have a smaller school closer to home.”
Bill Irwin, an assistant professor of management and organizational studies at Western’s Huron College, says in the 11 years since the closures began, there has not been an analysis on whether closing schools saves money.
“We need to see rural schools as an investment, not a cost,” he says.
Others demanded the province spend more time looking at what students need.
“The students well-being is not being discussed,” says Andrea Walden of Thedford. “We want to know how larger schools will help our children.”
And she urged the province to consider what will happen if rural schools disappear.
“This community has been feeding the GTA for over 100 years,” she said as the crowd applauded. “That two per cent of the people that feed Ontario need education which relates to them in science and technology… invest money in the education of the people who will be in the forefront of agriculture.”
Others, like Darren Ferguson of Parkhill, says there is no proof moving rural kids to larger schools gives a better education. “Prove it. Where are your facts?” he challenged the province. “Learning opportunities come from the teacher, not the size of the classroom.”
Ferguson also suggested it is time for municipalities to step up and tell the boards the economic impacts they will face.
Speakers also suggested:
• Municipalities have more of a say in school closures and possibly taking over the school building
• That the board talk to the communities before suggesting which schools should be closed to see if there is a local solution
• Public and Catholic boards sharing schools in small communities
• An appeals process when boards decide to close schools
• A moratorium on closures until an analysis of cost saving is complete.
Lambton County Warden Bill Weber was one of the people around the tables.
He recounted how Lambton Shores worked with the school board to provide services like a library and a gymnasium for all to use to keep the Grand Bend school open.
As the session ended, the warden stood and urged Rinaldi to listen closely to rural Ontario’s concerns.
“Rural Ontario matters,” he tells The Independent.
“It’s not the GTA. Don’t forget about us here and listen to what we have to say.”
“If bigger is better, back it up.”