Moratorium too late for local schools like Rothwell-Osnabruck, says MPP McDonell

Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, Scarborough-Guildwood MPP.

CORNWALL — Education Minister Mitzie Hunter denies it’s a full-out “moratorium,” but Ontario’s Official Opposition members are using that word to describe the pause imposed this week on most new Pupil Accommodation Reviews (PARs) — the precursor process school boards undertake before closing schools.

And local MPP Jim McDonell and his Progressive Conservative colleagues are pointedly observing the alleged ‘moratorium’ comes too late for schools doomed to closure during recently concluded PARs in the province — including the Upper Canada District School Board’s ‘Building for the Future’ process.

“The PC Caucus and I have demanded a moratorium for months, until a complete review of education in rural and northern communities is completed, and for months the Minister of Education refused to listen,” McDonell said.

Added the MPP, “I am pleased that schools in other regions will be safe from the flawed review that has caused Ontario communities, including North and South Stormont, the loss of treasured local schools. This action, however, won’t save Rothwell-Osnabruck and North Stormont Public schools, whose students will be forced to leave their communities and endure long bus commutes.  It’s unfortunate that Eastern Ontario has to pay such a heavy price for this outdated and now suspended process. The government finally acknowledges that the system was flawed and our region must be allowed to benefit from the new process that they are now saying is necessary.”

S-D-SG MPP Jim McDonell. Nation Valley News file photo

Hunter on Wednesday announced there would be no more PARs — except in cases involving student safety or potential shared facilities between boards —  pending a planned “overhaul” of current guidelines around the process. “After two months of consultation in ten rural and Northern communities, we heard that the current PAR process requires an overhaul,” said the minister, who nonetheless is allowing decisions rendered out of completed PARs to stand.

During a teleconference with reporters on Thursday, the minister wouldn’t give a definite timeline on how long a PAR fix might take to effect, although a review is supposed to begin this fall. Hunter already says she wants the new guidelines to include extended minimum timelines, consideration of more pupil accommodation options, enhanced and clearer roles for trustees and municipalities, increased student voice, and consideration of community impact and student well-being.

Her political opponents have called into question the minister’s motivation for what they deem a “policy reversal.”

“The next provincial election is a year away,” McDonell commented. “If the government expects this announcement to erase the wounds inflicted upon many communities across the province, they are very mistaken.”

Hunter also announced a $20-million Rural and Northern Education Fund (RNEF) to support students in rural and northern Ontario. But McDonell said it was was really a re-announcement of already approved funding  to improve programming, transportation, and e-learning tools.

“None of the funding is new,” MPP McDonell responded. “This funding was announced before the budget, and comes at a time when the government cut the Local Priorities Grant – a vital program for rural schools. They give with one hand, take with the other, and then expect us to not see through the wool they try to pull over our eyes.”

However, Upper Canada District School Board Chair Jeff McMillan expressed optimism the announcement was  “step in the right direction” for rural schools in Eastern Ontario. “We appreciate the acknowledgement by the Minister of Education that operating schools and providing quality education programs requires special consideration by the province.”

The UCDSB also betrayed some relief that Hunter won’t intervene on closure and consolidation decisions reached during the recently concluded Building for the Future PAR.

“The minister’s  announcement recognizes and honours the important role that locally-elected trustees have in addressing the specific needs of their communities,” said McMillan, who felt that leaving trustee decisions untouched would “allow all school boards, including the UCDSB, to move forward beyond the difficult dialogue of accommodation reviews and to set our focus and energies for serving and sustaining the schools that the Board has committed to operate into the foreseeable future.”

The board is also seeking clarification on the allocation funding announced by the minister.

McMillan also indicated that he sees an immediate fit between the province’s intent for school boards and communities to work together and the UCDSB’s own recent focus on “community outreach.”

Hunter’s announcement “amounts to good news” for the UCDSB, he said, alongside the province’s earlier $52.6-million funding commitment for UCDSB school projects.