A Hail Mary plan for a community to save its high school by pledging $400,000 to improve local programming has failed, after Upper Canada District School Board trustees voted to close Rothwell-Osnabruck High School and 11 other eastern Ontario schools.
For the past several months, parents in the Township of South Stormont had been trying to save Grades 7 to 12 at the school — even coming up with a corporate sponsorship.
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"I met with the township, who are willing to give cash money to help get programming back to [Rothwell-Osnabruck]," said trustee Wendy MacPherson, who proposed an amendment to remove the school from the chopping block.
"They are begging to help."
But when the numbers were crunched, six out of 11 trustees were not convinced.
Funding offer 'just doesn't fit'
The agreement would have seen $20,000 flow into the school board's coffers each year for the next 20 years, MacPherson said.
"Four-hundred-thousand [dollars] sounds like a great commitment — and to communities it is — but when you're looking at $20,000 a year, we know that wouldn't even pay an [educational assistant's] salary," explained Jeff McMillan, the school board's chair.
"I don't want to sound like we don't appreciate it, because we do [appreciate] the offer, but it just doesn't fit into the equation.
Parents Jennifer MacIsaac and Teri-Lynn Beckstead, who have been leading the charge to save the school, say the offer to help fund new programming is just one sign the community was stepping up.
"I think right now we are just completely flabbergasted," said MacIsaac, after she and more than a dozen other South Stormont residents rushed out of the school board meeting after MacPherson's amendment failed.
"I think you probably saw us sitting on the tips of our chairs because we did have some trustees making amazing points. To see it fall at the end when we had so much hope is devastating."
12 schools set to close
After four more debates to save individual schools on the closure list, trustees voted to close a number of schools from across the district: a huge area that includes communities in and around Cornwall, Brockville, Gananoque, Kemptville, Smiths Falls, Perth and the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.
David McDonald, the trustee for Cornwall, said the schools need to close because it makes the most financial sense for the board.
He also said it's the fairest decision since, for many schools, including Rothwell-Osnabruck, students who live in the catchment area are already "voting with their feet" by choosing to attend school elsewhere.
"Do you think that keeping it open one more year, two more years is going to make a difference? We've seen the numbers go down for eight years. We aren't getting the kids. They're choosing something else."
McDonald said there are 105 secondary students at Rothwell-Osnabruck this year and fewer than 90 students were expected for the next school year.
Parents at the school argue the declining enrolment is the fault of the school board, because it coincides with the decision to remove French immersion options.
That's why some councillors actually argued to increase the number of programs available at the schools.
"You don't fix a problem by saying, let's put more programming in," McDonald rebutted at the meeting. "You have to hire teachers to offer the programming. How do you hire teachers? You need more money. How do you get more money? You get more kids. Is it a chicken and an egg thing? Trustees, I'm kind of a little baffled."
Rural students to face long commutes
In many communities the closures will mean the difference from walking a few blocks to taking a lengthy bus ride.
MacIsaac said her son Ethan, who is in grade 10, spends his evenings working in a local grocery store to save money for post-secondary school.
Soon he'll spend close to an hour, twice a day, on a school bus.
"They will not be able to do the things of staying after school for school council and yearbook and that sort of thing. They'll have to get on the bus. They'll have less time for sleep, less time for homework, less time for family and friends and relaxing. High school is tough enough."
Danike Zummach, a student at Rothwell-Osbruck who fought back tears after the announcement, said she doesn't plan to take that ride.
She'd rather go across the street to the local Catholic school.
"There's a school closer than 28 kilometres away," said Beckstead. "They're going to lose a lot of children to the coterminous board now that they've made this decision and I really hope that they have thought that through."
UCDSB school closures
- Benson Public School, effective September 2017.
- Plantagenet Public School, effective September 2017.
- Rideau Centennial Public School, effective September 2017.
- Rothwell-Osnabruck School (Grades 7-12), effective September 2017.
- S.J. McLeod Public School, effective September 2017.
- Prince of Wales Public School, effective September 2018.
- Wolford Public School, effective September 2018.
- Oxford-on-Rideau Public School, effective September 2018, pending space at South Branch Elementary School, or in a subsequent year when space becomes available.
- North Stormont Public School, at a date to be confirmed pending ministry approval for an addition at Roxmore Public School.
- Maynard Public School, at a date to be confirmed pending ministry approval for an addition or rebuild of Wellington Elementary School.
- St. Lawrence Secondary School/Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School, at a date to be confirmed pending ministry approval for the rebuild of a Grade 7-12 school in Cornwall.
- Toniata Public School, at a date to be confirmed pending ministry approval for the rebuild of a new Brockville elementary school to consolidate Toniata and Commonwealth Public School with Prince of Wales Public School.