Education Minister and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson.
Bonnie Sitter / SunMedia
A provincial coalition is urging the Progressive Conservative government to replace the Liberal’s 2018 pupil accommodation review guideline, after the organization released the results of a survey that revealed recent school closures caused “serious problems” for students.The Ontario Alliance Against School Closures says the 2018 PARG is not a satisfactory improvement over the 2015 document that was in place when many accommodation review decisions were made, including ones by the Bluewater District School Board to turn the former OSCVI into an elementary school and shutter Bayview, Sydenham and Dufferin schools.“What needs to happen is that the Ford government needs to put out their own document and hopefully get back to a better relationship and one that’s more caring of students,” Owen Sound resident Judy Keeling, co-founder of the organization, said in an interview Wednesday.“We have asked for a meeting with the minister of education to talk about this issue and so I’m hoping we’ll be able to do that.”The organization wants the province to include in a new PARG language from the 2009 version that required accommodation review committees to consider, first and foremost, the school’s value to the student as well as to the school board, community and local economy when making decisions on potential school closures.“The community needs to have some kind of a voice in the school closure process. And that doesn’t mean there should be no school closures. It just means that what’s happened with the 2015 PARG is there was no listening anymore and decisions were really made in advance of that process,” Keeling said.“The 2018 PARG, we have not seen it in effect, but from what we’ve seen in the document, it’s not an improvement.”The 2009 PARG said school boards had to create school information profiles for each school under review. The profiles were to include data related to value of the school to the student, school board, community and local economy. The school’s value to the student was to take priority over the other considerations about the school.The document listed examples under each of the four considerations. For value to the student, they included student outcomes, program offerings, proximity of the school to students/length of bus rides to school and the ability of the school’s space to support student learning.The 2015 PARG did not include the value of the school to the community or local economy considerations. The examples were also removed.The 2018 PARG was released by the Liberal government about two months before their election loss that spring.The province, at the time, said the new guideline increased the number of public meetings, extended time frames and promoted community input and inclusion of student voices in the process.It also requires initial staff reports for the reviews to include a recommended scenario and at least two alternatives instead of mandating that at least one option be presented, which was the case under the 2015 PARG.However, the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures said the revised PARG removed all references to “values.”Instead, each scenario in the initial staff report must address the “impacts” on student programming, student well-being, school board resources and the community.The organization says the change in language “has created a manual that focuses on the impact of planned closures and is no longer an effective tool” for a pupil accommodation review.“Once they changed value to impacts, the whole purpose of the accommodation review was quite strictly to close the school. It was no longer to consider what are some of our other alternatives,” Keeling said.The 2018 PARG has not yet been used because the Liberal government slapped a moratorium on new reviews in 2017 as it worked to overhaul the process. That moratorium is still in place.School boards voted to close about 300 Ontario schools while the previous Liberal government was in power. About 99 schools are still scheduled to be closed because those decisions were made before the moratorium.Last spring, the alliance against school closures group launched a post-consolidation experience survey of students and parents affected by school closures in 2016 and 2017 under the 2015 PARG.About 300 people responded, Keeling said, and many respondents were from the Owen Sound area.The responses revealed “an overall dissatisfaction with how school closure decisions were made under the 2015 PARG and the consequent drastic effects that have occurred for students, parents and communities,” the organization said.“We expected to see many negative responses from disappointed parents and students, however, we have been surprised at how serious and ongoing the adjustment problems have been,” Keeling said.“The comments were very heartbreaking. Students were talking about feelings of alienation, unable to fit into the new school. And it’s not just an issue of this cohort trying to make an adjustment. Even after this group gets through, the kids from all these areas are still going to have to make those long bus rides and still will be prevented from staying after schooling. So it’s going to be a continuing problem.”In light of the survey, the organization says it has asked Education Minister Lisa Thompson to re-examine the 99 pending school closure decisions and replace the 2018 document with one “focusing directly on what is in the best interest of the student and community.”