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History in the unmaking

Some 141 years ago, just five years after Confederation, Three Bridges PS was built in Hawkesville, making it the Waterloo Region’s oldest active school. In the decades since, this small but durable structure has served generations of families in Woolwich’s conservative Mennonite community. But on Monday, the Waterloo Region District School Board trustees voted to close the school next August, with students transferring to nearby Floradale PS.

With only 83 students enrolled, the school was determined not financially viable for a school board struggling with a $4.5 million deficit, leading trustees to vote 6-4 in favour of closure. The death of Three Bridges could mean annual savings as high as $350,000, but the intangible losses are still being debated.

“It’s the end of a chapter, I think,” said local historian Barb Draper, who has chronicled the history of Woolwich’s Mennonite population.

“There’s a great deal of sadness connected with the loss of the school,” she continued. “I think [it signals] the end of cooperation between that Mennonite community and the public school board.”

With the province targeting small and one-room schools, Three Bridges is one of the last of its kind still active, and its deep roots with the Mennonite community have made it outlast all similar schools in the Waterloo townships.

Three Bridges PS began life as a log cabin in 1844 built by Mennonite settler John Brubacher. In 1872, the community built the structure at Hawkesville Road and Three Bridges Road that still stands today.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Three Bridges PS began life as a log cabin in 1844 built by Mennonite settler John Brubacher. In 1872, the community built the structure at Hawkesville Road and Three Bridges Road that still stands today. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
“Quite frankly, keeping Three Bridges School open was not a viable option for the board,” said trustee Andrea Mitchell, who voted in favour of closure.

“We had to be fiscally responsible as trustees, and we do have a $4.5 million dollar deficit at the board right now. The closure of Three Bridges will probably save us a substantial amount of money, because we do have pupil places for those 83 students that were at Three Bridges at Floradale School.”

Mitchell also noted that the same rationale was used in the recent decision to close Dickson Public School in Cambridge, and applying the same judgment to Three Bridges is a matter of fairness and equitability.

“We’re very familiar with Mennonite people in that area, and I really understand that they wanted to keep their school,” continued Mitchell. “But we’re caught in a pretty tight place right now financially. … In another time, we would have probably been able to keep it open, but right now we just can’t do it.”

Other trustees dissented the ruling, including vice-chairperson Harold Paisley, who said he is “very disappointed” with the decision.

“Probably there are some financial savings involved,” Paisley admitted. “It is hard to know how much – it could be as little as $150,000 a year or could be as much as slightly over $300,000. It depends how many of the students stay within the public system.”

Still, Paisley said, “There are times when there are more important things in life. There are other places to look for savings in the system.”

While many Three Bridges students will likely opt out of the WRDSB in favour of local Mennonite parochial schools, others will be bused to Floradale.

“I don’t know how big the difference will be for the old colony kid who then goes to Floradale,” said Draper. “They might not notice a whole lot of difference except that it’s bigger, and they may be in more of a minority.”

She added, “The other big difference, though, is they will have non-Mennonite classmates. … It would feel less like a Mennonite [community], and more of an exposure to the great, wider world.”

When asked for comment, Three Bridges staff said that a delegation of parents will be asking the school board to reconsider based on the closeness of the vote. If their appeal fails, it will be the end of the road for a school whose history stretches back to 1844, when settler John Brubacher first built a log-cabin schoolhouse for the Mennonite community.

“When you look at the school board’s perspective, you can understand,” said Draper. “They can only make exceptions for so long, and they have rules about what schools need to do and it just doesn’t fit anymore. So I can understand why the school board feels that it has to. But it’s also a sad time.”

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