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RCDSB votes to close Westmeath PS

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

The offices of the Renfrew County District School Board.

The offices of the Renfrew County District School Board.

It is all over for Westmeath Public School.

In an emotional meeting, trustees with the Renfrew County District School Board voted Tuesday to back staff recommendations to close Westmeath Public School, sending their students to Beachburg Public School starting this fall.

Madawaska Public School was also axed, with its students being bussed to Sherwood Public School, now located within the expanded Madawaska Valley High School, as of the 2016-2017 school year.

In front of a number of Westmeath residents and Hal Johnson, the mayor of Whitewater Region, who were observing from the public gallery, board trustees explained why they had to support the staff report which recommended the closure primarily based on the fact the building is older and needs work, and only 54 students attend a school which can accommodate 219 students.

Under Ministry of Education guidelines, any school which uses less than 56 per cent of the space is up for a student accommodation review. Under this formula, Westmeath PS only uses 26 per cent of its space, which made it a target for closure.

Wendy Hewitt, board vice-chairwoman, said this has been one of the hardest decisions she has ever had to make, and admitted it took her ages to make up her mind. In the end, though she said she had to set aside the needs of individual communities to think about what was best for the school system as a whole.

The facts are we are facing a declining enrolment and have over 4000 student surplus spaces that are not funded by the Ministry of Education,” she said. “This reality is not just in Westmeath and Madawaska area; it will affect other schools in the coming years and has already affected many schools in the past, as we have made a decision to close 11 schools in the past 10 years.”

Hewitt encouraged everyone to look at the positive instead of the negative in this development.

We all want what is best for our students. We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more,” she said, adding she believes the students will get used to their new surroundings in time.

I believe they will continue to have a sense of community in Beachburg school,” she said. “Students are more resilient than we give them credit for.”

Trustee Marjorie Adam said she represents North Renfrew, and they had three schools closed, with everyone relocated to what has become Mackenzie Community School. She said this has turned out to be a successful union, creating a new and vibrant school and community around it.

The recommendations were well founded by staff,” Adam said, noting aging buildings and shrinking student populations are an ongoing problem for rural schools, and the board has to remain committed to making the hard decisions.

While the entire board supported the accommodation report and its recommendations, the sole hold out was the board’s chairman, who voted against it. Dave Shields spoke out against closing Westmeath PS, saying the community deserved more time to work out a solution. He praised the Westmeath SOS committee for its professionalism in organizing residents in a show of support for the school, and for coming up with a number of innovative ideas which may work if they were given the chance to do so. One which showed promise is converting the school into a community hub, an idea which the province has $90 million in funding to make happen.

Twelve weeks is not enough time to see if any of these suggestions will work,” Shields said. “If given a chance, I believe their efforts would provide a model for others to follow in rural and Northern Ontario.”

He said by moving ahead with the closure, the board risks losing funding – some $10,000 per student - if Westmeath parents follow through with their threat to pull their kids out of the public school system rather than have them be bussed to a school outside of their community. The chairman said a survey conducted by Westmeath SOS suggested they’d lose between 20 to 30 students this way, meaning up to $300,000 could be lost in provincial funding, meaning closing Westmeath PS to save money would be counterproductive.

Following the vote to close Westmeath PS, Neil Nicholson, the head of the SOS committee, said he was disappointed in the outcome, but noted it is nothing he could fault the board trustees for doing, as they are caught in a situation where they have to make the numbers fit to the satisfaction of the province.

Unfortunately, we didn’t fit into the provincial model,” he said.

Nicholson admitted getting a warm feeling in seeing how the community stood up together to support the fight, and said that strength will enable them to shape their own future, which could be focused on the sole school in Westmeath, Our Lady of Grace.

He said he knows 11 or 12 families are talking about transferring their children to the Catholic school system, three families are pondering home schooling and five families are looking at transferring to French language schools, rather than be bussed to Beachburg.

What is going ahead is Westmeath Public School’s 110th anniversary celebration, set for June 11 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nicholson said it will be a chance to commemorate the school.

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