Superintendent of education Todd Awender speaks at the second public meeting to discuss the Greater Essex County District’s 2015 Program and Accommodation Review Committee at Harrow District High School Monday night. (Photo by Adam D’Andrea)
By Adam D’Andrea
Emotions ran high at Harrow District High School on Monday night as Essex County residents continued to voice their concerns about the 2015 Program and Accommodation Review Committee (PARC).
The second of four public meetings was held in the school’s gymnasium to discuss the Greater Essex County District School Board’s decision to move forward with accommodation reviews of General Amherst High School, Western Secondary School, Kingsville District High School, Harrow District High School and Harrow Public School. Superintendent of education Todd Awender presented attendees with a number of reasons why these schools have been chosen for review, including low utilization rates, significant renewal needs and projected low enrolment rates for the next 20 years.
“What really stuck out when looking at the numbers here was that the four secondary schools account for nearly 25 per cent of the empty space in the 71 buildings that are acting as schools across our system,” said Awender. “The current situation we have, it’s just not sustainable at this point in time.”
Awender also noted that a new top-up funding model has resulted in less money for each school, penalizing them for having more empty spaces. He said deciding how to approach the problems facing the schools has been extremely difficult.
“We know that all of our schools are great, we know that. We know that there are phenomenal parents and students across our system. That has not surprised any of us,” said Awender. “We’re trying now to enhance so that we can provide the programs and opportunities for all of our students and it has to fit into what is actually sustainable.”
After Awender’s presentation a handful of delegates were able to speak on the matter. One of them was Town of Essex Ward 4 Coun. Sherry Bondy who said closing schools in smaller communities will disrupt family routines, particularly with regards to students who choose to participate in after-school activities.
“I know if I had a son or daughter in Amherstburg or Kingsville it’s almost an hour trip there and back,” said Bondy. “That takes away from my family dinner, that takes away from my time and it adds to my costs for gas and mileage to put my children in extracurricular activities.”
Bondy added that the threat of closing schools can have economic ramifications on communities by affecting property values, discouraging developers from investing in the area and deterring young families from moving into smaller towns.
“I know last time we went through the PARC process we had 10 families I know who didn’t send their kids here because they’ll be here for grades 9 and 10, but we don’t know about grades 11 and 12.”
Town of Essex Ward 4 Coun. Sherry Bondy speaks at the second public meeting to discuss the Greater Essex County District’s 2015 Program and Accommodation Review Committee at Harrow District High School on Monday. (Photo by: Adam D’Andrea.)
An open mic session was also held so residents could discuss their ideas and concerns surrounding the PARC process. Peggy Thompson, who has one child at General Amherst and another son to enrol next year, questioned whether the GECDSB had done everything they could to spend and budget effectively before confronting communities with a PARC. She also criticized the process of receiving public input, saying it continuously changes without notification.
“I’m totally frustrated with the lack of open discussion and I’m frustrated with the whole process,” said Thompson. “The format keeps changing, none of us are told what is going to change or how it’s going to change. We are here and then are surprised when we find out how it’s going to happen.”
Susan Cote, who has one child enrolled at Western Secondary, said she was concerned with the potential scenario of merging Western with General Amherst and potentially other schools. She pointed to the merging of Century Secondary School and J.L. Forster Secondary School into Westview Freedom Academy last year as an example.
“What studies have been done, or are being done, so we have empirical data that shows whether there was a success or not to doing that?” asked Cote. “Particularly for the kids at Century. Is their attendance the same? Are their marks the same, or has their academic performance decreased? Have they lost time at school due to mental health issues because they’re not functioning as well now that you’ve put them into this mega-school?”
Awender responded by saying their special education department could be consulted on the issue.
“I know it’s an ongoing thing, looking to see how our students are doing in all of our schools across the system. But those questions have been noted and we can get the answers to you,” Awender said.
GECDSB trustee Ron LeClair, who represents Amherstburg and LaSalle, attended the meeting and said he would like to see an innovative response to the issues surrounding the five schools facing accommodation reviews.
“It’s always good to get public input and there were several good ideas this evening,” LeClair said. “I think the process will play itself out and hopefully we’ll come up with some creative solutions that will address all of the community needs.”
The third public meeting regarding the PARC will be held at Western Secondary School April 13 at 6 p.m.