How rural school closures are 'ripping the heart out of the community'

The Ontario Liberal government has come under pressure over the closing of rural schools in the province. But with changing demographics, it's an issue facing many small Canadian communities that fear it can have a significant negative impact on growth and their local economy.

People for Education has forecast 121 closures in Ontario, with the majority in rural areas

Sara van Ravenswaay, her classmates and parents of students at South Lincoln High School in Ontario's Niagara region were unable to save the school from closing its doors. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Sara van Ravenswaay stands outside her small rural Niagara region high school, which will close its doors forever at the end of the month.

The Grade 11 student, her classmates and their parents have fought desperately for South Lincoln High School's survival — attending school board meetings and rallies at Queen's Park and sending off a flurry of emails — all to no avail.

"We didn't actually think they were going to end up closing the school," said van Ravenswaay. "We thought it was going to blow over and it wasn't actually going to happen."

Van Ravenswaay credits the intimate environment of her small school of about 230 students for much of her academic success. That's why she burst into tears at a local school board meeting earlier this year when the final fate of her school was announced.

"I felt like really angry about it, and it was really sad at the same time because so many kids are going to be affected by it negatively."

South Lincoln High School is just one of a series of rural Ontario schools that are slated to close over the coming years.

According to Ontario's Education Ministry, as of 2015-2016, there were 3,978 elementary and 913 secondary public schools in the province.

While numbers vary, groups like the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures predict up to 600 schools, many of them in rural communities, could get the axe in the coming few years.

Meanwhile, People for Education has forecast a more conservative number of 121 closures over the next three years, with the majority in rural areas of southern Ontario.

'Hub of the community'

"It very much is the hub of the community and taking that away from the community is ripping the heart out of the community," said Doug Joyner, mayor of the Township of West Lincoln, which includes Smithville.

Last November, about 250 students and parents from the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures held a rally outside Queen's Park. (Facebook)

It's an issue that's not exclusive to Ontario but a symptom of changing demographics. Provinces from coast to coast are dealing with the rural school closures, as the percentage of total population in Canadian urban centres continues to rise, while the proportion of those living in rural areas steadily declines.

In the case of South Lincoln, the District School Board of Niagara noted that low enrolment figures, and the impact that has in offering courses and extracurricular activities, factored into its decision. The plan is to close three schools in the area, starting with South Lincoln, and build another school that is centrally located.

While school closures are decided by local school boards, much of the ire is aimed at provincial governments, which are often accused of inadequate funding.

"We understand the vital role that schools play in any community, particularly our rural communities," Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said in a statement. "Potential school closures are among the most difficult decisions that school boards and communities have to consider." 

In response to criticism and pressure, Hunter launched 10 "rural engagement sessions" across the province this year to gather feedback on how to best support and enhance rural and remote communities.

"​The productive feedback we received will help to inform next steps to shape the future of education in rural and remote Ontario," she said.

But Susan MacKenzie, spokesperson for  the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, said the province's efforts amount to "bad planning."

"They're way behind the 8-ball on it. They're backpedalling bigtime.

'Every community needs a school'

"In some cases school consolidations are necessary," she said. "But in single-school communities, that's when it's not necessary because every community needs a school."

Joyner said he fears the economic impact the closure of the high school will have on Smithville's economy.

"These kids they buy supplies, they buy food. I know a lot of the businesses in downtown Smithville are really worried knowing the students are not going to be there come this September," Joyner said.

Indeed, a consulting firm hired by local councillors earlier this year to assess the economic impact of closing five schools in Stone Mills Township in eastern Ontario found the local economy would lose $3.2 million a year, which is more than half the township's annual budget.

Township of West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner said he fears the economic impact the closure of South Lincoln High School will have on the local economy. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Members of these communities also fear that population growth will suffer as prospective homeowners ignore areas that have no local school. 

Teri Mooring, first vice-president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said she believes that concerns that rural school closures would become an election issue in her province sparked the government to establish the Rural Education Enhancement Fund last year.

The fund is available for rural communities outside Greater Victoria, the Lower Mainland and Kelowna areas with a population less than 15,000. This year, 11 rural schools will receive a portion of this year's $3.4-million investment, the province said.

"Certainly parents getting involved and putting pressure on made a huge difference here," Mooring said. 

But she remains cautious about the funding and sees it more as a temporary reprieve.

"It's a yearly fund and that's the problem. They have to apply for it every year so there's no guarantees," Mooring said. "Funding was not added to base funding so it's easy to discontinue a fund."

2 hours on bus

In Nova Scotia, the Greater Petite Area Community Association, which has been fighting since 2013 to keep its local elementary school open, is taking their battle to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to request a judicial review.

"We rely very much on our local schools for all kinds of purposes," said Stacey Godsoe, chair of the association. "It's really important to have those young children local and not on a bus for two hours missing out on active time and time with family."

But Godsoe said the provincial Liberals, who recently returned to power, seem to be "on the cusp of looking at things differently," promising they will pause on school reviews and look at school board structure.

"What that means is hard to say," she said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


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