Ministry meeting lays another layer of frustration
On a Friday evening, packed into a convention room at Isaiah Tubbs resort, community members, parents and board administrators gathered to discuss the contentious issue of rural school closure
There were those who represent communities and schools from across the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board (HPEDSB), currently working through a large volume of schools involved in an accommodation review process (ARC), along with people who drove in from the Limestone District School Board to the east.
The trouble is, the estimate for such a report is mid-summer, a month or more too late for the HPEDSB’s current ARC process, which will conclude on June 19 with a decision about whether to close at least three schools in Prince Edward County, along with more in Belleville and Madoc.
Currently, the proposal is to close Pinecrest and Sophiasburgh this summer, moving those kids to Queen Elizabeth School in Picton, which will subsequently close next year, moving all those children to Prince Edward Collegiate Institute, which for more than half a century has served as the County’s only high school.
This proposal has frustrated members of the ARC, especially those from Sophiasburgh who had developed a plan to incorporate a community kitchen and specialized programming into their east-end school in order to keep it open.
The business model was presented to the board, but was completely ignored in the final report. In discussing the issue with ARC members who attended from different jurisdictions on Friday, it seemed the issue was not unique.
Rinaldi says that if a school like Sophiasburgh, where a plan had been developed to create a community hub closes, that doesn’t preclude the building from becoming a community hub.
The evening was set up so that smaller groups could confer amongst themselves and answer questions in a workbook that the ministry would take away and use for their report. Ministry staff traveled around the room to help tables with questions. But the conversation was amongst those who came with concerns. The ministry only answered questions about the process they had brought that evening, and not about school closures.
Rinaldi was attending his second meeting, with two more coming in western Ontario. Fellow MPPs involved in running the public sessions would be attending separate meetings.
“The reason we’re here is because we want to make sure that if we move forward, we know some of the issues that have happened here, and make sure that next year or the year after, we don’t go through the same fucking mess,” Rinaldi says of the process.
Locally, Rinaldi placed the blame on trustees and even the public for a democratic apathy.
“I’m not pointing fingers, but [the trustees are] duly elected by the people who represent their communities. Yes, there is some direction from the province. But some of those local decisions, I hope it’s for the best of the kids,” says Rinaldi. “Next fall, there’s a municipal election. I just hope that some of these parents that are here tonight, that are very passionate about education put their hands up and vote for me. Because that’s democracy.”
Rinaldi could not elaborate on when the report based on the public meetings would come out, or what if any way recommendations to the ministry would change the course of events in this school board’s process.
Along with her mom, 10-year-old Sarah Byford was present, listening in. Her mother, Jennifer Byford, is on the Sophiasburgh ARC as a parent.
“I’m losing my school. I don’t think a lot of kids realize they won’t be able to go back to their schools,” says Sarah. Many of her friends’ parents have considered enrolling their kids at St. Gregory’s catholic school rather than sending them to Queen Elizabeth. She’s worried she’ll have to make all new friends when her school closes.
Sarah has learned tough lessons from her mother’s time on the ARC.
“Not everything goes the way you want it,” she said. But she added that to her, the fight her mother is fighting needs to be seen through. “I’d feel like we did our jobs. The moment that I actually hear our school will be shut down, I’ll feel we lost.”
Her mother is continuing to fight, even if it’s all just noise.
“This meeting should have been done months and months ago. It’s too late now,” Byford told the ministry staff. It will be taken under advisement for their July report.