By Ron Giofu
The issue of the possible consolidation of Stella Maris School and St. Bernard School at the former’s site went to the public again Monday night.
The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board’s (WECDSB) trustees heard from members of the public at St. Thomas of Villanova in a second public meeting with one of the two delegations coming from Amherstburg CAO John Miceli. However, the content of Miceli’s presentation to the board was a bone of contention at a special council meeting held just prior to the WECDSB meeting.
Miceli told town council he was providing comments to the board’s recommendation, something he said he was previously asked to do by council.
“From the town’s perspective, we don’t want any school to close,” said Miceli.
Miceli outlined his business case, one that leaned towards maintaining St. Bernard over Stella Maris if one school did, in fact, have to close this June. He said maintaining Stella Maris would require that school to build bus bays and expand parking, something he said could be difficult given there is 5.14 acres at that site, one acre less than St. Bernard. St. Bernard has some strategic advantages over Stella Maris, he added, noting the latter is surrounded by homes on three sides and an industry on the other.
St. Bernard is also located directly across from 30-acre Centennial Park, the CAO continued.
Keeping Stella Maris as the lone Catholic elementary school would also mean additional busing and thus more strain on the town’s roads, Miceli added. Eighty-one per cent of students that attend St. Bernard walk, as opposed to seven per cent at Stella Maris. St. Bernard is fed by three main roads while Stella Maris is fed by two, he added.
“We’re trying to provide a walkable, livable community,” said Miceli.
Subdivisions such as the Hunt Club Creek development and the Smith subdivision would bring a combined 1,400 homes to the town once complete, he added.
Both buildings are similar in age with St. Bernard being slightly bigger, Miceli added, with that school also being used more outside of school hours including its gymnasium.
“This, in my opinion, provides more of a community hub,” said Miceli.
Miceli also believed there would be a need for six new classrooms should a consolidation occur at Stella Maris, as opposed to four at St. Bernard. There are also “environmental concerns,” Miceli added, noting the mosquito problem that has been an issue in the Fraserville area of Amherstburg.
“Once again, we’d prefer that no school be closed,” said Miceli.
Not all council members stayed for what proved to be a preview of Miceli’s presentation to the board. Councillors Rick Fryer and Jason Lavigne both declared conflict early in the presentation, citing the fact both have children attending Stella Maris School.
“We don’t want Stella Maris closed either,” said Fryer. “I’d like both schools to stay open. What I’m hearing is it’s more conducive to close Stella Maris than St. Bernard.”
Lavigne believed the CAO’s report was pitting one school against another school and believing otherwise was “a little naive.” He said after the meeting he was “a little taken aback” by the presentation and said he didn’t recall administration being approved to give a report like that. Lavigne believed Stella Maris parents should ask the opinions of the council members who voted to allow Miceli to proceed with the presentation to the WECDSB.
“From what I saw, it seemed administration wanted to close Stella Maris and keep St. Bernard open,” said Lavigne.
Lavigne added it was always students that suffer when enrollment drops, asking that board officials look to other means to address funding issues including cutting back at the board office.
Councillor Diane Pouget said she was against the timing of the report, noting Miceli’s report was brought back to council right before the board meeting.
“It didn’t give us a chance to discuss it.”
Councillor Joan Courtney, a former Catholic trustee, said Miceli was directed to gather information to keep St. Bernard open and said the CAO was offering suggestions to the current board of trustees.
“With all due respect to my colleagues, you’ve had two months to step up, go to meetings and nothing has been done,” said Courtney.
Mayor Aldo DiCarlo didn’t think it was town administration that was pitting the schools against each other, it was the school board that was doing it.
“They did pit the schools against each other,” said DiCarlo.
DiCarlo believed that it was likely that one school is going to close “and there is not much we can do about that.” He said Miceli’s report was a business case.
“It will be perceived as it is perceived,” the mayor said.
Councillor Leo Meloche wanted Miceli at the meeting, believing if the CAO didn’t go that it would send the wrong message.
“If he doesn’t show up, it shows we are not interested,” said Meloche. “We need to make the presentation.”
Meloche added that the school board is in a tough spot due to enrollment.
“It’s a sign of the times. Our enrollment continues to decline,” said Meloche.
Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale believed Miceli’s report offered “good information” for those who read it.
“I think it’s going to be good for those who use the information. It gives our position as a town,” said DiPasquale.
Chief Administrative Officer John Miceli addresses the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board at St. Thomas of Villanova Secondary School Monday night. Miceli’s presentation on the possible consolidation of St. Bernard School and Stella Maris School was debated at a special council meeting earlier in the night.
The board meeting itself saw roughly 35-40 attend, up from the 10-12 people that attended a meeting in January at Villanova. There were two delegations, one from Miceli and the other from parent Frank Cleminson.
Cleminson said he was trying to put a “positive spin” on the matter but did have questions over start times for students if the schools were combined. He acknowledged board officials likely didn’t have an answer yet to that question.
As for portables, “my idea of a portable is something of a short-term duration,” he added. Director of education Paul Picard indicated the plan would be to use portables for up to one year with the WECSDB to pursue provincial funding for an expanded building at Stella Maris should the board recommendation be approved.
Cleminson also would like to see the savings reinvested into the school. He added that he has high praise for staffs at both Stella Maris, where his twin sons attend, and St. Bernard School.
Picard noted his belief that the Stella Maris option was his preference, noting the current scenario that the board is faced with calls for only one Catholic elementary school in the core of Amherstburg.
“Overall, the student demographic decline is significant and will continue to drop,” he said.
Even with new homes projected for the town, it would take an “extremely large number” of families enrolling with the Catholic board to make two schools feasible.
French Immersion at St. Joseph School in River Canard also draws students away from the two other schools. Picard envisioned a “triangle” of schools in the area, with the three schools comprising that “triangle” being St. Joseph, Stella Maris and St. Anthony in Harrow.
Picard added the WECSDB is aiming to fulfill a goal of having faith-based education in each community.
Vice chair Mary DiMenna said they visited Stella Maris earlier in the day and also noted parking is limited. She wanted to know if board administration had studied the busing scenario and planned to devote money to that.
Picard said they are aware of the issues and are looking at addressing them in a future report. He said the size of the lot at Stella Maris would be the “envy of many schools in the city.”
DiMenna also wanted busing costs factored into future reports.
Amherstburg/LaSalle trustee Frank DiTomasso said he was concerned about the impact on youth, including those in sports and other after-school activities.
“What I worry about is youth,” he said, “our children being moved from one school to another.”
DiTomasso questioned what would happen if a school has an after-school activity and their parents didn’t have a vehicle to take them home in should the consolidation at Stella Maris take place. Picard said the board would have to allocate budget dollars to allow for some form of transportation during after-school times, though admitted the town’s loss of a taxi service could present additional challenges.
Father Larry Brunet worried about student retention, with Picard stating there may be some who value location versus Catholic education.
“I have to respect that,” he said.
Picard said he hopes parents, guardians and students see the value of Catholic education and realize “we are offering something very valuable.”
The WECDSB will make its final decision on the matter April 5.