Monthly Column – Community Rallies to Save Rural Education

October 31, 2016

October has been a month of public meetings and rallies to stop a plan outlined in the Upper Canada District School Board’s report tabled last month.  It includes the closures of four rural high schools and the busing of students to Prescott, Vankleek Hill and a new 2,000 student mega school in Cornwall.  This is the result of additional provincial funding cuts since its last planning exercise in 2009 and the new provincial guidelines that eliminate their ability to consider the school’s importance to the community and the local economy.


The plan contains many issues that all those concerned need to consider.  First, the results of this and the Boundary 2020 study in 2009 highlight the need to replace aging, costly or surplus infrastructure.  ARC committees at CCVS and St. Lawrence high schools need an opportunity to put forth their community’s input into whether they are best served by one large school or two mediums schools as they are today. The one-school plan will also limit school extracurricular activities and sports opportunities for students through extended travel requirements when five local high schools are closed, as well as causing the disappearance of the associated school teams.


For the areas outside the city, the loss of the community high schools will be devastating. Their children will lose out of the extracurricular and sports activities because of the extra busing and travel times required, as well as the reduced spaces caused by the elimination of five area high schools.  Their local minor and senior sports programs will be impacted by the loss of the school’s gym and sport fields. The extra travel time affects after-school jobs, on-farm chores and the students’ available time for homework and sports. Most communities use local schools for activities, meeting and training and will now either have to build new facilities or go without. I see proposed boundary changes that will remove over 185 students from Tagwi High school and wonder if this plan will result in just one public school in the counties and one in the city.  How are our communities supposed to attract new resident families and thrive?


If a new Cornwall high school is needed, the provincial government needs to hear and heed the business case for it. I will enthusiastically work with the board to bring that plan to the Minister of Education and the Premier.  The government crisscrossed the province last week announcing funding for more than 20 new schools, and it’s time our needs were met without waiting for our students to be negatively impacted for years.   Parents have told me they will switch school boards across language or religious divides to ensure their children have a spot close to home, which will only result in a further exodus of students from the UCDSB. I encourage the community to write the Premier, the Minister of Education and the board trustees to ensure their views on local, quality education are heard.  This cannot be a fight between communities as it impacts our entire region, both city and counties. It’s time to take a stand to make the Minister of Education and this government realize that a sustainable funding formula is needed that preserves all communities’ access to education close to home. This problem was created by the provincial government, and we can’t let UCDSB take the fall for them. I have written to the Minister of Education requesting that she halt the review until the issues of sustainable rural school funding and proper infrastructure management policies have been addressed.


In Queen’s Park the issues of electricity prices and election financing continued to dominate Committees and Question Period. Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault dedicated much time and energy promoting a new electrical power deal with Quebec, but rigorously avoided details about a ten cent savings statement he made, despite being repeatedly asked about it by a persistent host on CFRA.  The reason for his avoidance was clear, the actual deal would only save an average family in Ontario ten cents per month.  After increasing our monthly hydro bills by hundreds of dollars per month, a ten cent savings is all we can hope to get off our bills with this new deal, because this government’s record of waste, scandal, mismanagement and the flooding our grid with over-paid and unneeded wind and solar power.


This Government must stop treating energy policy as a political game, fess up to their mistakes and start tackling the affordability issue head-on. Just last week their actions resulted in over $216 million in penalties and additional costs to the system between court settlements, judgments against the Government and reports of accounting errors at the Independent Electricity System Operator. These charges will inevitably find their way on our hydro and tax bills, nullifying any advantages from the Quebec power deal. With delivery rates set to increase relentlessly, Ontarians can expect to pay more for electricity despite all of the Government’s band-aid solutions.


Bill 2, which seeks to amend Ontario’s election finance rules, continued to tie up the General Government Committee. My colleague Randy Hillier and I, on behalf of the PC Caucus, wished to ensure the Committee was fully apprised of the significant amendments to the Bill the government announced back in August.  Only when their rushed schedule became jeopardized did they relent and release their list of intended amendments. To no one’s surprise, the amendments did not include all the points that the government had very publicly promised. Moreover, the PC Caucus demanded that the Chief Electoral Officer, who has advocated for changes to Ontario’s election finance law for years, be invited to attend all consultation and amendment meetings of the Committee, and be allowed to comment on them so we may draw on his expertise. Unfortunately, the government’s majority denied our requests. The current government must realize that important legislation such as Bill 2 should be examined by the public and experts, and their advice must be heard.


This principle applies across public policymaking. If only the Government could live by it, Ontarians would be noticeably better off today.