UCDSB trustees approve end of R-O High School, North Stormont Public School

Save South Stormont Schools campaigners Jennifer MacIsaac (centre) and Teri-Lynn Beckstead (with head down) react as Upper Canada District School Chair Jeff McMillan reads out the 5-6 vote that seemingly dooms high school education Rothwell-Osnabruck School, Thursday night, March 23 in Kemptville. Also shown is South Stormont Councillor Richard Waldroff (left), Paul MacIsaac (right), and a grimacing South Stormont Chief Administrative Officer Betty de Haan (front). Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Supporters vow to continue fight

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

KEMPTVILLE — Devastated Rothwell-Osnabruck School supporters are vowing to continue their fight after Upper Canada District School Board trustees voted Thursday night to ship Grades 7 through 12 out of the Ingleside-based school this fall, ending secondary education in South Stormont.

Among 12 approved school closures, the special March 23 meeting also okayed shutting down North Stormont Public School in Berwick, pending Ministry of Education funding to expand another school — Roxmore Public in Avonmore — to accommodate those students.

Stormont and Glengarry Trustee Wendy MacPherson presented a pair of amendments to exclude both schools from the recommended fates they were assigned in a final staff report last month. 

In both cases, MacPherson split the table, with a divided board turning down her proposals.

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning for MacPherson, introducing her motion to preserve secondary level education at R-O — a school notable for housing Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12 — right after the same majority defeated allied Trustee Lisa Swan’s motion to save an elementary school in her ward (Oxford-on-the-Rideau).

Repeating an argument hammered home by R-O supporters since September, MacPherson blamed the board’s decision to remove French Immersion as the root of the secondary school’s declining enrollment. Before French Immersion was kiboshed eight years ago, R-O needed portables to accommodate all of its secondary students, she pointed out.

R-O’s current crop of 17 Grade 9 students “marks how the board … hasn’t been paying attention to R-O, and we’ve allowed them to suffer,” she said, also asserting the township, community and local businesses are “begging to help” keep high school in operation.

The school could be “a winning JK-to-12 model we can be proud of,” she said

But Cornwall Trustee David McDonald — bluntest of the pro-chopping block — dismissed lack of French Immersion as the root of R-O’s ills, sarcastically referring to the program as a “magic potion.”

McDonald argued a 54 percent enrollment decline in the secondary grades at R-O began in 2007, predating the Accommodation Review process that removed French Immersion. The high school population at R-O currently stands at 105, McDonald observed, with “less than 90” predicted for 2017.

Backdrop to McDonald’s point were preliminary 2017 budget numbers, presented to the board the previous evening, projecting a $1.6-million deficit without various cuts.

“Currently we over-staff that school if you look at the base factor of 22-to-1,” the trustee added, rhetorically asking his colleagues: “Trustees, are you willing to take money out of the budget to continue to over-staff schools? Are you willing to take teachers out of your community schools to staff schools that have a low enrollment? Are you willing to pass a budget that supports over-staffing schools when a community has already chosen to go somewhere else?”

On side with MacPherson were trustees Swan, John McAllister, Jeremy Armer and Caroll Carkner, who were outvoted 6-5.

“It’s a unique school, and the success that that community has, I am in support of keeping the school,” said Armer, trustee for Dundas County.

“I’m in favour of this motion. Let’s give them a chance,” said Carkner, acknowledging the “promises made” by the municipality and community.

McAllister, a former reeve of Iroquois, noted that South Stormont’s flooded communities were “collateral damage” in the St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s. “Some would say the many promises of a better life, rebuilt homes, schools and churches and plentiful jobs were never realized,” he said, drawing a parallel to the unrealized promises of municipal and school board amalgamations of the 1990s and the resulting impact on R-O. This, he said, was  “exacerbated by the loss of French Immersion” at the school.

Later, distraught members of the Save South Stormont Schools committee consoled each other in the lobby at North Grenville District High School.

Jennifer MacIsaac, one of the leaders of the group, credited “some amazing trustees who worked very hard for us and gave amazing testimonials and facts.

“And then we had one trustee who gave alternate facts. And that trustee … sometimes it’s the loudest that carries the most pull,” MacIsaac told reporters, adding the community was “extremely frustrated” to see MacPherson’s amendment voted down.

“All we asked for was a chance. Give us a chance. Give us our French programming back, that’s what hurt us in the first place,” said Teri-Lynn Beckstead, adding, “We’re still going to keep fighting. I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“[The fight’s] not over because it’s one thing to lose a fair fight, but to lose a fight based on mistruths is not OK with me, and it’s not OK with this community,” said MacIsaac. “I guess it won’t be the last time the board hears from us on this.”

North Stormont Public School

On her second proposed amendment to preserve North Stormont Public School, MacPherson told the board she “truly feared” a large number of the 87 students at the school would end up transferring to St. Mary Catholic School in Chesterville, should their Berwick school close down.

But her motion was defeated 7-4.

 

Wendy MacPherson (left), John McAllister and Jeremy Armer were among five Upper Canada District School Board trustees to vote in favour of MacPherson’s motion that would have preserved Rothwell-Osnabruck High School by excluding it from the recommendations in the final Building for the Future Report. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News