North Stormont joins school closure impact study

Tagwi Secondary School Accommodation Review Committee member Jamie Patterson — also a member of 'Tagwi: Protect our Boundaries' — presents to North Stormont Council on Nov. 22. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

BERWICK — North Stormont Council has joined the effort to prove the worth of rural education and show support for threatened schools in its jurisdiction — by commissioning Doyletech Consulting to study the local impact of Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) proposals in the township.

Council approved the $4,000 expenditure Dec. 13 on the recommendation of municipal staff. The move followed a presentation three weeks earlier by a local group fighting the proposed shift of about 200 students from Tagwi Secondary School to Cornwall schools next year, as envisioned by the UCDSB’s far-reaching “Building for the Future” pupil accommodation review process.

While Tagwi dodged the direct threat of closure when the Board released its suite of controversial regional proposals in September, supporters of the Avonmore-based high school grew alarmed later in the fall when they realized the UCDSB aimed to pull 189 students from Tagwi and send them elsewhere. (That includes the school’s current student vice president — a fact reported by current president Taylor Rodger, who unhappily condemned the “attack on rural education” during a November information session at Tagwi.)

The proposed hollowing-out of Tagwi’s student population has since gotten worse — as noted by North Stormont Community Planner Amy Martin in her Dec. 13 report to council — under amendments to the Building for the Future draft document released by the UCDSB on Nov. 24.

“The amended data further decreases the number of students that are projected for Tagwi. By 2024/25 the utilization rate at Tagwi is projected to be 58 percent instead of the projected 84 percent,” Martin wrote.

MPP Jim McDonell addresses an information session last month at Tagwi Secondary School, when school supporters began gearing up a lobbying effort to protect the school's boundaries to prevent the anticipated loss of about 200 students to Cornwall. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

MPP Jim McDonell addresses an information session last month at Tagwi Secondary School, where school supporters began gearing up a lobbying effort to prevent the anticipated loss of about 200 students to Cornwall, starting next school year. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

With numbers like that, supporters of the school fear Tagwi is being set up for closure, too — perhaps in a few years. Local MPP Jim McDonell expressed precisely that concern at the Nov. 3 Tagwi meeting. If the UCDSB carries through with its other closure proposals, and then shuts Tagwi a handful of years later, the entire United Counties of SD&G would be left with only two high schools — North Dundas District High School in Chesterville and the French Catholic high school in Alexandria, McDonell observed. “Everything else would be in Cornwall,” he added at the time. The MPP has argued that because rural education serves a minority population, the province should fund it like the minority French language boards, which collect about 150 percent per student when compared to the UCDSB.

Meanwhile, North Stormont Public School in Berwick is definitely threatened with closure, making the list of schools doomed to shut if the UCDSB can’t secure capital upgrade from the province.

North Stormont Mayor Dennis Fife told Nation Valley News he anticipated Doyletech’s report will be delivered to council in early January. The report will specifically examine the economic impact of the UCDSB proposals on North Stormont, the mayor said, though he conceded he “wasn’t so sure” the document would sway trustees in the end. A final vote by the board of trustees on the school closure plan is slated March 23.

But by joining the other three municipalities in Stormont and Dundas counties that have already hired Doyletech for similar studies, it should offer “a little more teeth” to their arguments, said Fife.

The mayor expressed worry “the writing’s on the wall” for Tagwi if 200 students are diverted from the school.

Councillor Randy Douglas highlighted that North Stormont Public School “is in a lot better shape” than some other schools. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to close that one,” Douglas told Nation Valley News, also pointing out that French Immersion ought to be offered by NSPS.

The councillor observed the debate initiated by the UCDSB has unfortunately pitted “rural school against rural school. But it should be rural versus urban.”

Douglas also worried the fate of NSPS might get lost in the concern over Tagwi.

On the hiring of Doyletech, Douglas remarked council “had to do something to get more data and to show we’re taking this issue seriously.”