The expression on Julie Gorman’s face as superintendent of education Jean Stephenson presented the administrative council report on the future of Derby Public School to Bluewater District School Board trustees Tuesday evening in Chesley said it all.
The co-chair of the Derby accommodation review committee doesn’t believe the board “heard anything we had to say” and fears it could mean the closure of the school in June 2014 — just as recommended by the administrative council a year ago and repeated again Tuesday.
“It’s no surprise really,” Gorman said after, her disappointment clearly showing. “It appears all they’ve done is taken the original recommendation, chewed it up a bit, added rural and gave it back to us. It’s just the original recommendation re-hashed . . . there’s no definite plan and there needs to be.”
The final recommendation of the administrative council — board senior staff — is that the board approve the closure of Derby Public School in June 2014 and that all current out-of-boundary students return to schools in their local catchment areas. Derby students would be re-assigned to the nearest rural school — either Arran-Tara Elementary School in Tara or Sullivan Community School in Desboro — as of September 2014.
Stephenson said the administrative council “thoroughly reviewed all of the options” and said with a 30% vacancy rate in schools across the board and funding uncertainties, “tough choices have to be made.”
Earlier trustees listened intently as Gorman and ARC member Jason Legge presented in detail a 50-page report on why Derby should stay open. They told trustees that after months of meetings, reports, phone calls, research and more meetings, their recommendation “is that Derby Public School should stay open for five more years.”
That would give the board time “to formulate a better long-term plan.” The committee also recommended an accommodation review be done “at that time with a nearby school . . . with the vision of building a new rural school, centrally located to meet the students’ needs.” In the meantime, “the provincial government will have time to fix the many problems there are with this review process.”
The committee’s alternate recommendation was to form a partnership with the Township of Georgian Bluffs to help finance repairs and an addition to the school, which could then be used for community activities.
Legge told trustees the Derby ARC recommendations take “our children into account, something the board plan does not.” The plan is also “financially responsible, unlike the board plan.”
Both Legge and Gorman repeated their earlier concerns to the board about what they called a flawed process.
“Let’s not use a flawed process to determine the future of Derby or close a school prematurely,” Legge said, adding the current process pits parents and students against the board’s administrative council, stresses the community and leaves the children wondering what’s next.
In a 40-minute presentation to trustees, in addition to concerns about the process, Gorman repeatedly reminded trustees of what she called “difficulty in getting accurate information from board staff” and repeated earlier concerns about why Derby, as a single school community, “was ever put into an ARC review to begin with.”
Gorman said many ARC questions “were never answered. We were never told why Derby was singled out . . . the lack of response gives the impression we were set up for failure from the very beginning. The decision had already been made. One year later and we see absolutely no change to the original recommendation. There’s a lack of transparency here and where’s the accountability?”
Chatsworth-area trustee Marilyn McComb said she “cannot and will not” support the administrative council’s recommendation.
“It appears after all this time and work, we are back at square one,” McComb said, adding she’s “convinced Derby has at least five good years left.”
Business committee chair Dan Wong, who in the past has chaired two school accommodation review committees in the Walkerton area, said he ”doesn’t have a good feeling” about the Derby one-school review and suggested perhaps another review is needed, with Derby and one or two other schools.
Hanover-area trustee John Chapman called the ARC process “divisive in a rural community. The entire culture is different in rural Ontario and it needs to be respected and understood. The ministry (of education) has imposed this upon us, but it is a process that is flawed from the onset . . . it is simply a no-win situation.”
Chapman challenged the board “to be a leader. If this process is flawed and we know it is, it behooves us to lobby the minister and the premier and get it changed. We’re in a hell of a mess if this is the best we’ve got,” Chapman said, his remarks drawing loud applause from the 50 or so Derby parents, students and community members in attendance.
Gorman said the past year has been “incredibly stressful” for all involved calling it “a year of unprecedented upheaval” for the Derby community.
“Now we play the waiting game.”
Trustees have the summer and early fall to review all of the information presented to them and are to make a final decision on the future of Derby on Oct. 15.