'Fight it together': Like P.E.I., Ontario group fighting potential school closures

The spokesperson for an Ontario-based organization told CBC's Island Morning that Queen's Park is considering closing some 600 schools in that province, mostly in rural areas.

The organization's spokesperson vowed to make this an issue for the 2018 provincial election

Georgetown Elementary School is one of five schools the province has recommended for closure. (Stephanie Brown/CBC)

A group of Ontario residents is fighting a battle similar to the one fought by many Islanders over the possibility that five of the province's schools will be closed

The spokesperson for an Ontario-based organization told CBC's Island Morning Monday that Queen's Park is considering closing some 600 schools in that province, mostly in rural areas.

Susan MacKenzie said the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures wrote to the education minister in response last fall requesting a moratorium on school closures until the province introduced a "more democratic" Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline and committed "fair" funding for rural and northern communities.

"We haven't been successful yet, but there is an election next year, and we will definitely make this an election issue," she said.

This guideline sets out how Ontario school boards are, for example, to decide whether to close a school.

Introduced in March 2015, MacKenzie said the latest version of the guideline considers a school's value only as it relates to the individual student and the school board. Previously, the guideline had also included its value to the community, local economy and municipal government.

These signs were on display during a meeting on the possible closure of St. Jean school. (Stephanie Brown/CBC News)

A school's value to a community was a "serious consideration," she said, adding that under the former guideline, there was greater communication with local governments because they had strategic plans.

When you don't have local government and school boards co-operating or communicating, the strategic plan of the municipality is not regarded or respected," MacKenzie said. "You have gaping holes in neighbourhoods, inner-city, fragile neighbourhoods, and then you have single-school communities that are going to lose the viability of their town when the only school is removed."

The closure of rural schools affects the "whole student," she said, explaining that hours-long bus rides result in children losing out on things such as extracurricular activities, family time and sleep time.

"They don't have a chance to be kids."

Social media a 'very important tool'

To communicate with the Ministry of Education, MacKenzie said, the organization has held a rally at Queen's Park and a news conference.

So far, the group's call for a moratorium on school closures has the support of about a million people, as well as the leaders of the opposition parties.

"We gained our base through social media," MacKenzie said, describing this as a "very important tool."

In fact, the organization came to be when MacKenzie, having gone through a school review in 2016, connected with a woman elsewhere in Ontario over shared experiences.

"Once you start with two, it becomes four, it becomes eight, and it just multiplies," she said, "And you find out that these communities do not have to be isolated with their Pupil Accommodation Review, so our Facebook page is full of good conversation, good comments, sharing of information.

"We really feel that we're one big group in the province — urban and rural," MacKenzie said. "Don't do it in isolation: get everybody together and fight it together."

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With files from Island Morning