Trustee left in tears over Rideau High School closure

School board trustees have recommended closing Rideau High School in east Ottawa after an emotional two days of delegations and debate.

'It is hard to see the community torn apart by decisions like this'

Sandra Schwartz said that when she became the Innes/Beacon Hill–Cyrville trustee, she never imagined being faced with the decision to close seven schools. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

School board trustees have recommended closing Rideau High School in east Ottawa after an emotional two days of delegations and debate.

Speaking through tears, trustee Sandra Schwartz said it's a hard choice, but the right choice. 

We all have difficulty with this decision.- Sandra Schwartz, trustee

"We all have difficulty with this decision," said Schwartz. "I've lived in Ottawa east most of my life ... It is hard to see the community torn apart by decisions like this."

However, Schwartz said it's in the best interest of students to shut down the school, and move its 400 students to the bigger Gloucester High School six kilometres away. Both are operating at 40 per cent capacity. 

Trustees who voted in favour of the schools merging argued it would provide Rideau High students with a better education including a larger selection of courses, sports teams, arts programs and other extracurricular activities.

"In my heart, I believe we've done an injustice to the students in this area for the last many years, by not giving them those choices because of small schools and declining enrolment," said Schwartz.

'The heart of the community'

For community members fighting to save Rideau High, last night's vote was a "travesty."

Barb Darling said she acted as a voice for parents who couldn't attend the meetings because of work or fear of speaking up. Many are Indigenous, Syrian refugees or low-income parents who work more than one job to support their children, she said.

"It's a loss of the heart of the community," said Darling. "It will take a long time, if ever, to recover that."

This is the second time in the past decade that Rideau High has been on the chopping block. 

Rob Campbell, a former school trustee who knows Rideau High School well, said he's concerned about the welfare of the neighbourhood. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

Rob Campbell is a former trustee who attended similar meetings back then, and voiced his concerns again yesterday to keep the school open. But now he fears it's too late.

"[I feel] a sense of disappointment but also regret," said Campbell. "I wonder when I was in place, and colleagues of mine were in place, if we couldn't have done more, kept our foot on the pedal more?"

Campbell sees both sides of the argument but is concerned this closure could set a precedent and signify more of what's to come. 

"I do worry it means that the board will have indicated it doesn't know how to handle situations of declining enrolment in critically vulnerable neighbourhoods, and in a sense we will have given up too early," Campbell said. 

Free buses to be offered

Trustees spent much of the night reworking amendments to soften the blow for Rideau High students.

Motions were passed to provide free transportation to make it easier for students to bus to their new school, which could mean being given free Presto cards. 

As well, staff should start working immediately on setting up a culturally friendly space at Gloucester High for Indigenous students, comparable to the lodge at Rideau High. 

"I have no doubt in my mind the proposed changes will have an immediate and significant academic benefit for students...," Schwartz told trustees. 

"I am confident this recommended approach will result in a school that is stronger and better as a result."

Rideau High School is the seventh school trustees recommended to close down at meetings this week.

The board will make its final decision on the school closures in March.