Money’s tight, but the kids are alright
With one school closing and another accommodating two new grades, the school year got off to a bit of a rocky start in Prince Edward County. Now in week three, most issues have been sorted out.
Many of the concerns that dogged parents during the week leading into the school year, like too-small and unfinished classrooms and buildings, have been alleviated as kids settled in.
An email from the board’s communications manager, Kerry Donnell, quotes Director of Education Mandy Savery-Whiteway with assurance that everything was in order by day one.
“Schools and staff throughout HPEDSB were ready to welcome approximately 15,000 returning and new students on the first day of school,” the email stated. “I believe that all employees contribute to student achievement and well-being by supporting the programs and services offered by Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board.”
Donnell’s email also explained the work that was completed and that which is ongoing, both at PECI and Queen Elizabeth, and clarified some misunderstandings. At PECI, work that wrapped up by September 5 included painting, ceilings, millwork, new whiteboards, new entrance doors, a teacher prep room and new plumbing, lighting, flooring and a roof, while an unused gym partition and dilapidated greenhouse were removed.
There is still some landscaping and façade work to be done, along with the installation of a new PA system and bus loop paving. The classrooms in the wing that will be separated for Kindergarten to Grade 8 students has not yet been built. In Queen Elizabeth Public School, new classrooms were created in the open space on the upper level of the school, space that had been left in case such classrooms were needed.
“The school was initially designed so that the open space could be converted to classrooms, if needed,” Donnell explained. “Full walls and doors were added to what was already there. A classroom was not created in the library.”
Some classrooms that had been vacant or used for different purposes were returned to their intended use as the introduction of Pinecrest students expanded the population at Queen Elizabeth.
A room on the main floor was returned to being a Kindergarten classroom. It had been used as a classroom since the school was built, then, due to declining enrolment, had not been used as a classroom for the past two years. Instead, it was used as a room for literacy resources. Over the summer it was made into a classroom once again, back to its original use.
An accessible washroom was also built at the elementary school to accommodate students.
The changes did cause difficulty for students who use the bus, and anxiety for their parents.
One parent, Amanda Campbell, says the bus was 20 minutes late and completely full when it arrived at her children’s stop.
“The first day getting on the bus, my two kids and the neighbour’s two kids got on together. The bus was so full, there was nowhere for them to sit. After a few minutes of waiting for them to find a seat, the driver slowly started pulling away—they were all still standing, walking back and forth,” Campbell recalls. “The driver ended up stopping at the end of the road, put the lights on again and opened the door. My daughter was still standing when he turned the corner, and there were at least two more stops after my kids.”
The bus that brought them home was 40 minutes late. Concerned about the unsafe situation, Campbell took to driving her kids to school until the overcrowding issue was resolved, noting her neighbour’s children were still waiting for the bus after it should have arrived at their stop.
The following week, however, her kids are back on the bus. Campbell says the buses are much better organized now.
Another mother, Natalie Wollenberg, says that twice her children arrived nearly two hours late after the driver apparently missed their stop.
“This bus driver obviously had no idea, or wasn’t properly trained—but honestly he had no idea,” says Wollenberg. “He missed our stop and took the high school kids home first, on Baker Street, close to Demorestville. When our kids finally got off the bus, another mum and I overheard him asking the two remaining kids, ‘how do we get to your stop?’ These kids had another 16-18km to go.”
The following day, there was no problem, but a similar incident occurred last Monday, with Wollenberg and another parent waiting until after 4 for their children to be dropped off, despite living near the beginning of the bus route.
Tri-Board CEO Gord Paylor says that with the closure of Pinecrest, new routes had to be designed to get kids to school. That, along with new teachers, students, schools and drivers meant delays were inevitable.
“Drivers need to get to know the students. They need to know who they are. Some of the students are quite young, so some of them don’t know their stop,” says Paylor. “We need to find our rhythm in the school year, and it does take two or three weeks to get settled down into that routine that’s dependable, and it works until the first snowfall. Then we adjust again.”
Paylor says caution from staff wanting to avoid mistakes was probably the culprit for delays on afternoon buses for the first few days.
“It was exceedingly slow in the first few days. That had an impact on when kids get home, obviously. If they miss a stop and the child doesn’t get back and they end up somewhere else, they need to be taken back,” says Paylor. “None of the children are at any risk, but as a parent, you wonder where your child is if they didn’t come home. They’re still on the bus, and they’re getting there.”
The closure of Pinecrest, along with other schools in the HPEDSB, has not solved the board’s financial woes. Donnell says enrolment is still down, and the ministry is pressing boards across the province to present a balanced budget. In its 2016 financial audit, the board’s debt was close to $156 million and mounting.
As a result, the board has cut every school’s budget by approximately 30 per cent, encouraging staff to develop better resource management, and asking those who run extra-curricular activities to avoid cutting into teaching hours.
“This may result in changes to the way extra-curricular activities, such as sports and clubs, occur at schools,” Donnell wrote. “For example, the time of day when the activities occur may change to later in the afternoon rather than early in the school day.”
Because budget reductions did not occur in previous years as enrollment had declined, school budget cuts and closures and consolidations were just one of the cost-saving measures the board has undertaken, which also includes reducing numbers of permanent staff and professional development.
Donnell does add that despite this, “student achievement and well-being continue to be the focus at HPEDSB,” and that the board is working with school leaders to appropriately distribute funds so that programming and access to extracurricular activities is not adversely affected.