Parents plead to keep schools open

by Melissa Schneider St. Thomas-Elgin Weekly News

Parents, students and local politicians packed the gallery during the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) Public Input meeting May 2, pleading with trustees to keep rural schools open. The meeting will last through May 3 with 57 speakers slated to speak.

Thirty speakers were on last night’s agenda ranging from concerned parents to local mayors, deputy mayors and Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek. Pleas ranged from speaking about what some consider a flawed funding formula from the Ministry of Education, to the importance of rural schools in small communities.

With TVDSB senior administration recommending the closure and consolidation of five rural schools, parents for Sparta Public School, New Sarum Public School, Port Stanley Public School and Mitchell Hepburn Public School spoke last night.

Yurek said parents need to be trusted to make the right decisions for their children, and that schools in the Elgin community already provide the opportunity for excellent education.

“This review process was too short and parents and communities have worked hard to find alternative solutions. I’m asking you to listen to parents,” he stated.

Yurek agrees with the suggestion to split the Elementary Pupil Accommodation Review process into two separate portions – allowing South Dorchester and Westminster Public Schools to close to create a new school in Belmont, while leaving the other schools status quo.

Doug Tarry, of Doug Tarry Homes, also spoke to the crowd. His company worked with the school board to build Mitchell Hepburn Public School.

His concerns were about the board’s math when it comes to new school builds and empty pupil places.

“It would be really nice if you guys would come talk to us,” he said. “I think it would be really dumb to close New Sarum because you’re going to wipe out the empty seats at Mitchell Hepburn in no time. If our numbers (for potential residential growth) hold, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, you’re going to need both schools.”

He said in March there were 239 new housing starts in the London/St. Thomas area, causing an unprecedented scarcity of housing inventory, something his company is working on. With Phase 1 of Harvest Run, Tarry’s newest St. Thomas subdivision, just opening he said the 92 single lots available have already been sold on deposit within the first four days of their release, leading him to believe the housing boom will not calm down any time soon.

Marcus Ryan, of the Ontario Schools Alliance, said the board’s goal should be educational outcomes for students.

He encouraged trustees to do what’s right for the students, adding the board should apply for a new school builds in Belmont and southeast St. Thomas, while leaving Sparta, Springfield and New Sarum alone.

Tonight another round of speakers is slated to present, with the TVDSB scheduled to make their final decision by Tuesday, May 23.