Sunday, June 07, 2015

Three Area Public Schools on the Chopping Block

ARC Meeting; Two Local Public Schools May Soon Close

By John Taylor

Submitted to the Dunnville Free Press, June 07, 2015

When the time comes to shut down a school, who decides? The answer to that question was laid open to public view in Grandview Central Public School's gymnasium at 7 PM on June 4th, 2015. The decision makers are the "Accommodation Review Committee (ARC)" an open committee (that is, they never meet behind closed doors) of seventeen principals and school trustees, seated in two semi-circles, ten on the left and seven on the right. A packed audience showed how great the concern is among the public as well, especially from parents and other supporters of the two schools on the chopping block. Signs are popping up all over Dunnville declaring, "Save Fairview School," "Save Grandview School" and, outside town, "Save Anna Melick Memorial School."

The ARC Chair, Brian Doyle, opened the meeting with a brief history of what made further closures necessary so soon after Dunnville Central Public School was shut down in 2011, less than one "cycle" of five years ago. Ultimately, the need to cut is caused by the shrinking family (fertility is much smaller than it was in the 1970's), an aging population and the slumping economy of Dunnville. Even construction of new housing developments and the re-opening of the former Bicks plant by Original Foods in this period has not been enough to reverse the trend. With only .32 students per dwelling, the growth adds up to only enough to fill two classrooms.

In order to deal with redundancy, the Ontario government has instituted a "ten kilometre rule" across the province. Any school below capacity that is closer than that distance from another facility will not qualify for full funding and is subject to closure. Only ten schools in our area qualify for such immunity. No matter what, at least one public school will have to close by the first of September, 2016.

Doyle declared that their purpose this time was not to make final decisions but to review recommendations and gain input from committee members and the public. Trustees were confronted with a bewildering array of five complex options of closing one or a combination of small schools and redistributing their students among one or more larger schools of two or three hundred students, such as Thompson's Creek in Dunnville, or J.L. Mitchener in Cayuga (which is far below capacity). As discussions continued, the list soon grew to six, seven and then eight, then shrunk down to six again. Members raised several further questions. Should they consider expanding the larger institutions with portable classrooms? Should the students of any closed schools be kept together or distributed among several larger schools?

At least one creative suggestion was brought forward, to combine J.L. Mitchener school's building with the new library that is planned for Cayuga, a merger of two institutions with the compatible purpose of learning. Others pointed out that their decision could have unforeseen consequences. For example, closing Anna Melick Public School is likely to provoke an exodus of students to a closer school in Winger, which is part of the Niagara Board of Education. The chair declared that this is unthinkable because it would mean a further loss of funding for the Grand Erie Board. Competition with the Catholic Board of Education for a diminishing talent pool further complicates the situation.
The chair declared that he had not seen before so much discussion as had just taken place, and promised that they would come up with the best solution. He then offered the microphone to an eager public. Bob Lake expanded further on the history of schools, going back as far as the 1960's, concluding, "We need to maintain our rural heritage." Another questioner asked, "What are we doing to attract more parents and jobs to the area?" Another felt that we should close the rural schools and stop "picking on Dunnville."

I was impressed by the openness of the process, the non-confrontational attitude of the participants and the concern expressed by the general public. The tone of the discussion was truly exemplary. My only criticism is that technology seemed underused. Only a display of the agenda was projected on a screen, though I am told that maps and graphs have been shown in the past. The process may have been sped up with an electronic meeting system, and decision-making simplified with consultative software designed for facilitating such meetings.

Full resolution versions of all photos I took are at:

For more information about the ARC process, see their site:

Former teacher Bob Lake addresses the ARC review committee.