Sudbury

Rainbow School Board facing 'uphill battle' as closure plan unravels

It was one year ago that the Rainbow District School Board voted to close eight schools in the Sudbury area. But it's had trouble making that plan a reality.

Lansdowne and Queen Elizabeth schools to stay as is, following 2nd funding rejection

A parent walks up to Lansdowne Public School in Sudbury at pick-up time on Tuesday, the day the Rainbow District School Board revealed the school would be staying open. (Erik White/CBC)

It was one year ago that the Rainbow District School Board voted to close eight schools in the Sudbury area.

But its had trouble making that plan a reality.

The latest setback is a second rejection for provincial funding to build a new elementary school for the Donovan and Flour Mill neighbourhoods replacing Lansdowne and Queen Elizabeth schools.

Superintendent of business Dennis Bazinet said the board is "disappointed" by the rejection, but will look for some new solutions to use excess space at the two elementary schools, most likely by pursuing more daycare spots.

For Rebecca Coughlin, a mother of four, who has two daughters in Grade 2 at Lansdowne, it was great news.

"I'm so excited. I'm really happy," she said on the steps of the school after picking up her girls after class.

"I think it was a short-sighted decision to be honest. I don't think it took into account the changing demographic in the neighbourhood."

Ryan Rouleau, a Grade 12 student at Lively District Secondary School, holds up a sign at a rally to save his school in October 2016. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Lansdowne was one of several schools slated for closure that saw a decrease in enrolment this school year, with the number of students dipping by 27 to 238.

Lively District Secondary School, which was spared from closure following an outpouring of public support, also saw its student population shrink by 19 students to 281.

The board kept Lively High open partly based on plans to rent out empty space to an outside tenant, but Bazinet said so far no lease has been signed.

The board is instead considering closing off unused rooms in the school, to save on electricity and cleaning bills.

Similarly, the Rainbow Board got provincial funding to demolish an empty section of Levack elementary school, a former high school, so the building would be "right-sized."

The board also landed funding for a new elementary school in New Sudbury, with four others in the neighbourhood closing, but its opening was pushed back until 2020.

And the plan to move Chelmsford elementary students and Grade 7s and 8s from Larchwood into Chelmsford Valley District Composite School is on track for 2019.

But Bazinet said the changes and delays to their plan come with a financial cost. The Rainbow board will once again have to look at dipping into reserves (after pulling out $2.2 million last year) and possible staff cuts to balance the books.

"The board, given the delays on some of the consolidation, has an uphill battle in regards to its budgets," he said.

The Near North school board plans to close Widdifield high school in North Bay and redistribute the students to the two remaining English public secondary schools in the city. (Near North District School Board)

Other school boards in northeastern Ontario continue to look for ways to get rid of old buildings to save money.

The province has just approved the construction of a new school in Blind River that will see students from the English public elementary and high schools move into a new building to be shared with the French public board.

Algoma District School Board director of education Lucia Reece said this might raise questions about why Ontario has four competing school boards, but her focus is on doing what's best for students.

"I think people are recognizing sometimes we can't wait for the politicians to make decisions, we've got to make the right decisions for students," she said.

"I would hope that sometime in the near future the political will will be there to continue those conversations. We can't be afraid to have those conversations. We just have to enter them with an open mind."

Reece said that while boards are working together in smaller northern Ontario towns, there isn't the same pressure to share space in larger centres because there are still enough students to go around.

"It should happen anywhere where there's an opportunity to consolidate schools and joining boards," said David Thompson, the chair of the Near North District School Board.

"We've tried and tried and tried with the three other coterminous boards, and they refuse to meet with us or even talk to us. It's very frustrating."

Near North has voted to fold three North Bay elementary schools into one and is also closing one of its three high schools in the city.

Thompson knows that candidates in the upcoming provincial and municipal elections will run on the school closures issue, but he warns voters to be wary of those who have no other ideas on how to pay for the education system.

 "On one hand you tell us, we're cutting your funding and you've got to make some tough decisions. Now they're stopping you from pretty well the only thing you can do. I find that pretty tough business to do. So, June 7th, hopefully whatever government gets in, really revisits the funding formula," Thompson said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

now