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Rural schools at risk

JENNIFER BURDEN, THE PACKET & TIMES

A rural school is the fabric that binds a community together, Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes says.

As some smaller, rural schools face declining enrolment and infrastructure hardships, there is a threat that the thread of some communities will begin to unravel.

"People specifically move to a rural area because that's the kind of education they want for their children," Hughes, a former school principal, said. "The population would shift out of your rural municipalities into the urban ones (if rural schools close.)"

In November, the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) approved a pupil accommodation review beginning in September 2011 in the north elementary planning review area that includes Coldwater Public School, Moonstone Elementary School and Warminster Public School. In the board's capital plan, staff recommend closing Moonstone and providing capital improvements to Coldwater and Warminster schools. Moonstone students would then be relocated to the remaining two schools.

Other rural schools that have been pinpointed in the board's five-year capital plan as potentially facing problems in the future include Marchmont Public School in Severn Township and Shanty Bay Public School in Oro-Medonte Township.

But what makes a rural school so special to its community and its students?

For Peter Beacock, SCDSB trustee for Oro-Medonte and Springwater townships, it is the connection students in rural schools form with their community.

"The kids in those rural areas have top-notch education because they're so much more connected to the community, and the community is so much more connected to them than it is in city schools," Beacock said.

A rural school has an entirely different feel than a city school, he added. They have more of a family feeling. That is a trait Beacock said the SCDSB just cannot lose.

"If you take a village like Moonstone -- that community was basically built around that school," Beacock said. "If we were to close that school, what does that do to the community? What does that do to the values of the home?"

Beacock said he is committed to preserving the vitality of rural schools throughout the area. If nothing is done to curb the trend, 10 or 15 years down the road, all that will be left is city schools, he added.

"We have to look at ways to make it better. We have to look at ways of changing the (funding) formula from the ministry. That's going to take advocation."

Currently, schools across the SCDSB do not qualify as rural schools under the Ministry of Education's (MOE) funding model.

The MOE defines rural schools as those which have a zero in their postal code, MOE spokesperson Gary Wheeler wrote in an email. Schools that are considered rural generate additional funding for the local school board.

Wheeler said since the McGuinty government came into power, the MOE has increased funding for rural boards by 30%.

"In 2010-11 alone, rural boards are projected to receive $109 million in new investments, bringing funding for rural boards to over $3.5 billion," he wrote.

None of that funding finds its way to the SCDSB.

Jodie Lloyd, SCDSB trustee for Severn, Ramara and Tay townships, said the board has some very difficult challenges ahead of it.

"It isn't as simple as just saying 'Let's save all rural schools,'" Lloyd said. "Yes, we'd like to save them all. Is it realistic based upon the funding model we currently have and the financial resources that are going to be available to us? I don't know if we can sustain it long-term and meet all the requirements we need to for programs (and) for accessible buildings."

Lloyd believes all schools, both urban and rural, are important, but like everything else, it comes down to finances. She said education is fighting against health care for every cent of provincial funding.

The SCDSC is a board that has a lot of smaller schools, many of which are facing aging infrastructure.

"We, as a board, have a very difficult time supporting these schools. It doesn't mean it's right, it doesn't mean it's the way we'd like to go. But it is a challenge we're having," Lloyd said.

Eileen Leishman, principal of Marchmont Public School, said she has seen both sides of the coin -- working in both rural and urban schools. Both are equally valuable, she said.

"I think every school has its own culture... That's the uniqueness of every building.''

Rural or not, every student, teacher, administrator, and parent loves their local school. Any school facing closure in any community would feel an impact, but it's all part of a process bigger than the individual school, she added.

Moonstone Public School principal Rose Phillips declined to comment for this story.

jburden@orilliapacket.com



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