OPSBA wants school closure moratorium lifted

It’s time for the province to lift its moratorium on school closings, according to the Ontario Public School Board Association.

The board, representing English public district school boards and public school authorities across Ontario, has made several recommendations to the province.

The OPSBA wants the school closure moratorium, which was put in place by the Wynne government in 2017 and has since been upheld by the Ford government, is lifted before the end of the current school year.

The board is also asking the Ministry of Education to complete its review of the Pupil Accommodation Review guidelines, the community engagement process used by boards when considering consolidating or closing a school.

PARs were put in place to provide boards with better guidelines on the impact on the community and student well-being before closing a school.

“After nearly six years, our students and their families shouldn’t have to wait any longer for their schools to be built, repaired, and renewed,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the OPSBA.

Students and parents/guardians in the Ridgetown area have been playing the waiting game since the Lambton Kent District School Board released its original PAR in the fall of 2015.

The plan was amended a year later to identify two options for secondary and elementary schools in the South Kent area.

The preferred option remains to build a new ‘super school’ and close Ridgetown District High School along with Blenheim, Tilbury District, and John McGregor Secondary in Chatham.

The LKDSB owns an eight-acre parcel of land in the undeveloped section of Keil Dr. S., south of Indian Creek Rd. W., on the outskirts of Chatham, although it has yet to officially be identified as a possible location for a new school.

Under the preferred option, Grade 7 and 8 students attending RDHS would move to Naahii Ridge while in Blenheim, W.J. Baird would close, and those students would be consolidated into Harwich Raleigh.

The LKDSB’s original option called for the closure of RDHS and all three schools in Blenheim, with a new Kindergarten-Grade 12 school to be built on the current site of either BDHS or Harwich Raleigh.

This option also called for Naahii Ridge to remain a K-6 school while Grade 7 and 8 students from Ridgetown and area would attend the new Blenheim school.

Susan Litwin and Jim Brown co-chaired a town meeting on Feb. 3, 2016, where residents were united in planning to fight the closure of RDHS and busing students to Blenheim.

At that time, residents were still reeling from the closure of Ridgetown Public School just five years earlier in 2011.

Ridgeview Moravian Elementary was renamed Naahii Ridge Public School as a JK to Grade 6 school, while all Grade 7 and 8 students were moved to a new wing at RDHS.

The student population has been in decline at RDHS in both the secondary and elementary levels since the proposed PAR was introduced in 2015.

RDHS had 117 secondary students (29 Grade 9; 23 Grade 10; 38 Grade 11; and 27 Grade 12) as of Oct. 31, 2022, according to the 2022-23 Pupil Accommodation Report that was presented at the Dec. 13 board meeting.

The school was operating at 24 percent capacity in a building that could house 495 students.RDHS had 259 students 10 years ago in 2012-13 and 202 in 2016-17, but the population has been in the 100s ever since.

In the elementary wing, RDHS had 71 students (26 Grade 7, 45 Grade 8) as of Oct. 31, 2022, which is 77 percent capacity.

The RDHS elementary wing peaked at 104 students in 2013-14 and was at 84 in ‘16-17 but has been in the 70s ever since – excluding the ‘20-21 year when there were only 57 students in class while another 20 or so opted for at-home virtual learning during the height of the pandemic.

Naahii Ridge, on the other hand, is experiencing an increase in population, with an enrolment of 289 students as of Oct. 31, 2022, in a building with a capacity of 375, for a capacity percentage of 77%. The current population is an increase of 29 from ‘21-22 as more students have returned from virtual learning and are at its highest since there were 299 students in both ‘13-14 and ‘14-15.

Another PAR being considered by the board is turning Lambton Kent Composite School into an elementary school while secondary school students would be consolidated into Wallaceburg District and Chatham-Kent Secondary Schools, and Lambton Central in Petrolia.

If the LKDSB goes through with its plans, only three public secondary schools will remain in Chatham-Kent – the new South Kent school, CKSS and WDSS.

Ursuline College Chatham is the only Catholic secondary school in Chatham-Kent.

Closing schools in rural communities will always be controversial as many facilities were built when towns and townships had their own school boards before being amalgamated into county-wide and cross-county boards, such as the former Kent County and current Lambton Kent boards at the public school level.

The community and businesses strongly support these schools, such as RDHS.

But with aging facilities and steady population declines, it is challenging for boards to continue to fund under-capacity schools.

“The current situation has created unsustainable funding deficits, as it costs the same to clean, heat, maintain, and keep the lights on in a school whether it is half empty or full,” said Abraham.

She said school closure decisions are among the most challenging for school boards.

“Despite these challenges, school board trustees always focus on the educational needs of all of their students as well as the prudent distribution of resources to meet those needs,” Abraham said. “We recognize that school closures can be difficult and emotional for students, families, and staff.

However, they are often necessary to ensure the academic success of students and the long-term financial stability of the school district while responding to natural shifts in demographics over time.”

She said school boards have traditionally consolidated or closed schools to ensure students receive the best possible educational options and opportunities as subject availability is also impacted by lack of financing to under-capacity schools.

“By bringing students together through a school consolidation, school boards are often able to offer a better educational experience,” she said. “But after nearly six years, our students and their families shouldn’t have to wait any longer for their schools to be built, repaired, and renewed.”

She said the OPSBA looks forward to the impending release of the Grants for Student Needs and new Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines so the board can work with the government to address this important issue.

Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News