News Local

Halt school review: trustee

By Nathan Taylor, Orillia Packet & Times

A local trustee will be asking his school board colleagues to halt a review of an Oro-Medonte Township school that's on the chopping block.

Peter Beacock, representing Oro-Medonte and Springwater townships with the Simcoe County District School Board, will give notice at the August board meeting that he intends to ask that the accommodation review for Moonstone Elementary School, scheduled to take place this fall, be abandoned.

Beacock joins Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop and a group of concerned parents calling on the board to leave the little school alone.

"Hold the train for a bit," Beacock said Thursday. "Get the (capital priorities) list dwindled down some and then have a look at it."

Board staff previously recommended the school be closed. As a result, the board plans to strike an accommodation review committee (ARC) to look at the school's value to the community, businesses and school board, and consider all options.

But the ARC process is flawed, said Simon Kennedy, co-chair of the Moonstone Elementary Enhancement Team (MEET), which was formed four years ago after the school was first targeted for closure.

"We do appreciate the ability to be included with the ARC," Kennedy said.

However, after seeing the board vote against another ARC's recommendation to not close an elementary school in Duntroon, "we started to think, what's the point?"

"If the board isn't really listening to the public. it just seems like a waste of time and effort," Kennedy said.

Kennedy acknowledged there were "other factors at play" when it came to potential school closures, such as the financial feasibility of sustaining a small school, but "there has to be more than a dollars-and-cents way of looking at things.

It's more about the quality of education and the value to the community of rural school, he said.

"That's why we moved here. We have kids, and we moved here because of the school."

One of the reasons behind the staff recommendation to close the school is enrolment, but Kennedy challenges that argument, saying enrolment has been "stable" and that it's expected there will be an increase in enrolment in kindergarten in 2011-12.

Enrolment has indeed been dropping, said Janis Medysky, associate director of the board. She noted the 2011-12 projected enrolment is 144 students. That number was 152 in 2010-11 and 172.5 in 2009-10.

"It's a slight decline," she said, "but I wouldn't say it's stable."

MEET has also taken issue with the order in which actions are taken regarding school closures, saying in a press release a final decision to close a school "cannot come before public discussion has taken place."

That is correct, Medysky said, adding that is the process the board follows.

Common practice is that staff present options to the board. An ARC - which includes parents and other community members - is then formed and, after reviewing its options, presents a report for the board with its recommendations. Staff then looks at the ARC's final report and makes another recommendation to the board. Trustees make the final decision.

"The public discussion comes through the ARC process," Medysky said.

Kennedy also challenged statements that Moonstone doesn't have the infrastructure to support growth. He noted there have been new sidewalks created and upgrades to watermains and Moonstone Road.

"That wouldn't be happening if there wasn't growth," he said.

Another factor that has led some to call the ARC process into question is funding. It has to come from the provincial government, and there's not much cash to go around.

"The biggest issue right now is government. and that there isn't a lot of money," Beacock said.

That made Kennedy wonder again, what's the point?

"If there's no funding available, why put a community through the stress and everything that entails?"

Staff have noted some students at Moonstone Elementary School could be transferred to Coldwater Public School, which would receive an expansion - something Beacock said would be more expensive than upgrading the Moonstone school - but in the long term, Coldwater is also looking at population decline, Beacock said.

He was also concerned about the atmosphere created by ARCs.

"Every time we do an ARC, it just causes huge problems with families," he said. "It pits communities against each other."

Grade 7 and 8 students were shipped off to Coldwater in 1995 because of the capacity of Moonstone's septic system, Beacock said, suggesting maybe it would make sense to bring them back.

"The alternative is to leave it alone and do nothing or bring the 7s and 8s back, give them their school back."

In 2021, there could be 185 students at Moonstone Elementary if Grade 7 and 8 students were there, he said.

Oro-Medonte council also joined the chorus in February, passing a motion stating its support for rural schools.

Beacock echoed that support, saying Moonstone specifically "is one of the only things in the community that holds it together."

A vote on Beacock's motion to suspend the ARC process for Moonstone could take place at the September board meeting.

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