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Province announces moratorium on rural school closures

The day before St. Agatha Catholic Elementary School closed its doors for the last time, the province put a moratorium on rural school closures.

Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter made the announcement as the government overhauls the process by which school boards review schools for potential closure. The government says its new plan will improve the quality and delivery of rural education for students.

The overhaul draws on public feedback heard during in-person rural education forums and from online surveys. In addition to overhauling the process for reviewing school closures, the plan will also provide a new rural and northern education fund effective this September to enhance learning experience, provide increased funding to co-operation between school boards and upgrade broadband Internet connections. It also boosts funding for special education and experiential learning.

“Our government is committed to strengthening rural and Northern education. We are increasing our investment in rural and Northern students to help ensure that they have high-quality education services and programs that meet their needs,” said Hunter in a statement.

While this process is being re-imagined, school boards will not be able to begin any new reviews. Although this announcement does put a pause on any further school closures, it was too late for any action on the scheduled closure of St. Agatha, as the moratorium is not retroactive.

In late March, the Waterloo Catholic District School Board made its final decision to close the school effective June 2017, citing the accommodation review that showed retaining a school with just 82 students wasn’t worth the nearly $3 million needed to repair the structure.

Michael Harris, the MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga, said although the moratorium will allow for policymakers to decide how to best move forward, it is too little, too late.

“Well, it’s too late for St. Agatha,” he said. “It is unfortunate that it had to come this late. The schools that were slated for closure will close, students will be displaced and shuffled around for September – we will have to see where this goes.”

Harris is chalking the announcement up to a political move by the Liberals to save face in rural communities in advance of next year’s election.

“(Rural schools) are the backbone of any community,” he said, pointing to his own time spent at a rural school. “As these rural schools continue to close at the pace that they have, kids will simply have to ride a bus farther and farther and farther and farther; something has to change. We look forward to talking about how the PCs will bring that change leading up to the next election. But don’t be remised, this decision by the liberals was a political decision to punt any potential school closure to after the next election.”

With neither the Catholic or public school boards having any more closures on the horizon, the moratorium won’t have an impact at this time.

In fact, the Waterloo Region District School Board is expanding its roster of schools instead.

“The WRDSB does not have any schools under consideration for closure. We are fortunate that our enrolment continues to increase and we are building schools – we have two new elementary schools opening this September,” said spokesperson Lynsey Slupeiks.

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