February 29, 2012

Population drop boosts risk of school closure

As published in The Erin Advocate

For the first time since the Great Depression, the population of Erin has gone down.

Statistics Canada results from the 2011 census show the town with 10,770 residents, a decline of 378 (-3.4%) since 2006. If the trend continues, including a relatively low number of families with young children, at least one of Erin's public elementary schools could close in the next few years.

The possibility was raised last month by Matt Pearson, Project Manager of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), in a presentation to town council. He highlighted the fact that there were already population declines in the age 0-14 and age 20-29 groups before 2006.

"Eventually, you are going to say, why are we running two arenas?" he said. The largest segment is in the 40-59 age range – many of whom would like to see their kids have the opportunity to live and work in Erin.

"They can't afford to live in town if there's no jobs," he said, pointing out that the average value of a house in Erin went from $276,000 in 2001 to $410,000 in 2006, and is likely over $500,000 now. He also noted that many seniors cannot afford to downsize here.

"Fifteen per cent of the labour force works in town. It's not what you wanted. This is why we're losing school age youth. You're going to get one of these studies, one of these days, that's going to tell you you've got two schools too many.

"That's a really hard thing when a small community loses a school. It takes jobs away, it takes community focus away. How do you keep your schools? You've got to have more people."

Upper Grand School Trustee Kathryn Cooper confirmed that low enrollment is a serious concern that could lead a school closure. No changes are expected in the next couple of years as the board assesses the impact of added students in full-day kindergarten and possible changes in class sizes.

"Schools are our community hubs," she said. "We need more kids in Erin if we want to keep our schools. Boards are paid on a per student basis. Fewer students means fewer dollars."

She said that Ross R. Mackay School in Hillsburgh is at risk because the board's 2011 Identified Schools Report showed a projected enrollment of 130 students, while the school can accommodate 213. The occupancy rate of 61% is the third lowest among the board's 59 elementary schools.

Brisbane was projected to have 349 students, at 84% of capacity, while Erin Public was projected to have 438, at 74% of capacity. A new projection report will be done in the next few months.
St. John Brebeuf Catholic School has a capacity of 302, and enrollment is down slightly at 93%, with 282 students. Brebeuf and Erin Public both have full-day kindergarten, with Brisbane scheduled to get it this fall, and Mackay in September 2014.

Cooper said the current controversy over transfer of French Immersion students to Brisbane is not directly related to the low enrollment issue. French Immersion accounts for about 57% of students at Brisbane and 11% at Erin Public.

From 1901 to 1941, the combined population of Erin Township and Erin Village declined steadily, from 4,098 to 3,104. Then there were increases for each 10-year census period (including a 42% increase during the 1970s) until the downturn in 2011.

But while total population has declined since 2006, the number of private dwellings is virtually unchanged at 3,939, and up slightly from the 2001 count of 3,892.

"We have a mature population of long-term residents," said Town of Erin Planner Sally Stull. "The kids have gone someplace else, so what you are seeing is an emptying out of homes."
She does not see the population decline as an economic threat to the Town, since the tax base continues to expand, with people continuing to buy properties and add value to them.

"The community faces changes as the demographics change," she said. "We're going to see less demand for sports facilities and more for seniors centres. Even with sewage treatment, I am not convinced that we're going to see more young families."

Lack of sewers has put a hold on new subdivisions since 2007, pending completion of the ongoing SSMP Environmental Assessment.

The population of Ontario stands at 12.9 million, making up 38.4% of Canada's 33.5 million people. But the provincial growth rate of 5.7% is the lowest since the early 1980s. With today's parents having fewer children than previous generations, Canada relies on immigration for 67% of its population growth – considered essential to fuel the economy. By 2031, immigration is expected to account for 80% of population growth.

Ontario's immigration minister Charles Sousa has complained that the federal government has shifted some its funding for settlement of newcomers away from Ontario, to the booming economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Erin receives very few immigrants. As well, the ratio of Canadians living in rural areas has declined steadily from 86% in 1851 to 17% in 2011.

The 2011 census shows population increases since 2006 in the neighbouring municipalities of Caledon (+4.2%), East Garafraxa (+8.6%), Guelph Eramosa (+2.6%), Centre Wellington (+2.5%), and Halton Hills (+6.7%). Brampton was up by 20.8% to 523,911, while Milton had the fast growth in Canada, rising 56.5% to 84,362.

Population figures published by Statistics Canada do not include people missed in the census count, but the agency later provides an estimate of the rate of "undercount". For Wellington in 2001, that rate was 4.75%, so when provincial planners put population estimates in the Places to Grow charts, to be used by the county, they bumped up the census figures by 4.75%.

So while the census says Erin had 11,148 people in 2006, the planning estimate is 11,680. For 2011, planners had estimated 11,930, but that turned out to be too high. The census reported 10,770, but an extra 4.75% only brings that up to 11,281. Instead of the small increase that was predicted, Erin had a small decline.