In the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, which stretches from Temagami to Manitouwadge north of Thunder Bay, 18 churches have closed over the past two decades and more will be locked up for good by the end of next month, including Corpus Christi, St. Rita's and Saints- Anges in North Bay and La Resurrection in Sturgeon Falls.Despite how many Catholic boards would love the two to be more related than they are, the reality is that regular church attendance and Catholic-school enrolment are not joined at the hip. Many baptized Catholics will send their baptized kids to Catholic schools and never attend services at the nearest parish. (We were one of those families) It also negates how some Catholic boards allow other baptized Christians (or anyone at all) to attend their elementary schools. I specify elementary schools because high schools are under an open-access policy and Catholic boards cannot deny enrolment to non-Catholic students in their schools from Grade 9 onwards. The analysis also ignores the complex reasons for why Catholics choose to enrol their kids in Catholic schools -- for some undoubtedly it's a question of faith, but other reasons include location, physical building, programs, etc.
People don't attend services like they once did. And the church no longer has enough priests.This was brought to mind recently when Near North District School Board trustees boycotted a news conference where funding was announced for facilities in Mattawa.
The trustees are upset because the public board received $1 million to address accommodation needs at F.J. McElligott Secondary School while the two separate boards -- Nipissing- Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and Conseil Scolaire Catholique Franco- Nord -- are getting funds to build new facilities.
Both French families and Catholics in Ontario have a constitutionally protected right to attend their own schools.
But should the provincial government continue pouring millions of dollars into the Catholic education system when churches are falling like dominoes?
Is there disparity in capital funding between the boards? Absolutely. Catholic and French boards have undoubtedly been bigger benefactors of government capital than English public boards since 1998, when these allocations shifted to (somewhat) of a per-pupil allocation. Those with knowledge of the past would remember that prior to 1998, when public boards received the dollars from all the commercial and industrial assessment in their catchment areas the equation was vastly different. In essence, after decades of being the much, much poorer cousins Catholic and French boards are playing catchup to public boards in being able to offer equitable facilities, recognizing their enrolment and geographical distribution.
Having said all that, this seems more motivated by sour grapes among public school board trustees and administrators in the area than by the larger question of either faith-based schooling or consolidation. Despite my own educational background, I've never hidden my preference for two school systems in this province within this space-- one English, one French. It's been done in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (the latter striking the fear of God into Catholic educators in Ontario) with the requisite constitutional amendments. From what I can tell from this perch however, it hasn't altered the dynamics of aging school buildings, declining enrolment and the need to have a well-prepared capital plan.
With the chances of a constitutional amendment low, perhaps the board in this area should concentrate on getting its ducks in a row for the next round of capital funding, should there be one.
Had there been a single school system the same capital dollars would have likely flowed into the area for renewal and accommodation, so this is not the fiscal argument to stake this position on.