Saturday, July 4, 2009

Building fiefdoms

The Nugget posted this column Friday/Saturday by David Dale regarding the changes happening to Mattawa schools. Particularly, the local French board getting funds to build a new high school (soon to be a K-12 campus), leaving the currently twinned F.J. McElligott Secondary School. When complete, the French-language students will move into a brand new facility, leaving F.J. McElligott, an older building, feeling their loss.
Mayor Dean Backer summarized the mood in Mattawa.
“Our biggest fear is the separation of our students,” Backer said. The community wants any new school to house all the students, he said, as well as a library and other town amenities in partnership.
Franco-Nord, on the other hand, has an opportunity to go it alone and is proposing to expand its future facility into one that also serves French Catholic elementary students. The tykes at Ecole Ste. Anne, which has been deemed too costly to repair, will potentially bring the total number of Franco-Nord students under one roof in Mattawa to 237.
The situation that exists in Mattawa, the one where two school boards share a facility, is unique in Ontario.
Unfortunately, educational segregation and the battle to build school board empires is quite common.
Some may argue the diversity of our educational choices creates a healthy competition environment that stimulates progress by requiring excellence.
I’ve grown to think it spreads scarce resources too thin and builds unnecessary walls that divide our communities.
English Catholic, French Catholic, French non-Catholic and English non-Catholic systems provide a lot of choice for consumers. There are also a few private schools within jetting-distance for those with excess cash to spend.
And native students have the option of attending Nbisiing high school in Nipissing First Nation’s Duchesnay Village.
Dale goes onto to speak about the money this is all costing, in an era when the pursestrings supposedly should be or could be tighter.
A similar situation is happening in my coverage area. The Conseil scolaire du district des ecoles Catholiques du Sud-Ouest got an $8-million grant to build a new French Catholic high school in Woodstock, which would serve the eastern end of this geographically sprawling but small-population minority language board. Recently, the grant was amended so they too can move their existing elementary school to the same site and create a K-12 campus. The new Ecole Notre-Dame will replace the current Ste-Marguerite de Bourgeoys and Ecole Secondaire Ste-Marie, the latter of which shares space with the English Catholic St. Mary's High School.
This could be seen as creating fiefdoms-- particularly in an age when the public Thames Valley District School board voted last fall to close the rural Norwich District High School. Or it could be seen as giving students in the French Catholic board an equal foot to stand on, after decades of being the poorer cousin to English boards-- living out of their portables, schools managed by their school boards or sharing space by necessity in an era where there weren't enough students to justify a separate facility. I can certainly understand that-- as an English Catholic school graduate pre-1998, we were always the poorer cousin to the local public board in terms of facilities, programs, etc. due to the rich commercial assessment that went to public boards by default and allowed them these items that per-pupil funding has made difficult to maintain.
What makes this odd is now the province is seriously considering the recommedations of the Declining Enrolment Working Group, which include mandating co-terminous boards to share vacant space before building new.
The question is whether $9.1 million in Mattawa or $13 million in Woodstock would have created better learning facilities for as many students as possible in existing facilities. I suspect that's not as easy to answer.