March 08, 2018

Residents hope to avoid school closures

When Erin and Hillsburgh parents were asked what they want their schools to be in the future, their main response was “Open!”
About 100 people turned out to a workshop style meeting at Erin Public School on Feb. 28, hoping to discuss low enrolment issues.
The meeting was hosted by the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB), as part of the consultation process in developing a Long Term Accommodation Plan (LTAP) throughout Wellington, Dufferin and Guelph.
There will be another round of consultation before the final plan goes to trustees in June. There will be no recommendations on school closures – just further steps in a lengthy process that could lead to future changes.
There was some frustration because the meeting format did not allow attendees to make comments or ask direct questions of school board officials in the public session. Instead, people sat in rotating groups of six and were asked to describe their schools now, and what they want them to be.
 “The discussion questions last night were odd,” said Cooper in a Facebook post. “They didn't address the issues the school communities were facing at all.”
Town Councillor Jeff Duncan called the questions “lame”, since they did not deal with enrolment.
“This was an intentional attempt by Board officials, not even supported by their own trustee, to keep a lid on the community being able to voice its concern over the real issue here of the future closure of schools,” said Duncan. Residents were asked to fill out an on-line survey that closed just two days later.
There is particular concern over enrolment at Ross R. Mackay School in Hillsburgh. Its population of 90 students is expected to drop to 64 in five years, using only 32 per cent of the school’s capacity.
That rate could stay low if there is no housing growth, making it a candidate for closure. With new subdivisions supported by sewers, enrolment could rebound to 165 (83 per cent usage) in ten years.
The discussion groups were able to bring forward suggestions to help boost attendance at MacKay, including a boundary review that could increase its catchment area, and the transfer of some special education classes to the school.
There is also the possibility of making Brisbane Public School entirely French Immersion, which could result in more English-only students at MacKay.
Cooper supported investigation of such alternatives, but said the suggestion of adding Grades 7 and 8 at MacKay would not be practical. Technology courses for those grades are only feasible with higher student populations.
With sewage capacity to support new housing, Brisbane is projected to reach 107 per cent of capacity (477 students) in 10 years and Erin Public School to reach 79 per cent (423 students). Without substantial new housing, Brisbane would grow more slowly, reaching 101 per cent in 10 years, while Erin Public would decline to 47 per cent.
St. John Brebeuf Catholic School in Erin village currently has 238 students, but could accommodate more than 300. Principal Lowell Butts​ said they are holding steady, with the same number of students as in the previous school year.
Mayor Al Alls and Trustee Cooper have urged residents to support development of a wastewater system, but there is concern about the cost to existing urban homeowners. An Environmental Assessment is expected to wrap up this spring with a definite wastewater plan, but an actual system could still take well over five years to develop.
“The town has spent a large amount of money, time and energy in going through the regulatory hoops to allow for growth in our community,” said Duncan.
“I would hope the UGDSB would over the short to mid term allow this required process to play out and work with us.”