Dear Ottawa public board: Go ahead, close 6 schools

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A Note To … Parents protesting the proposed closures of at least six Ottawa public schools. Feel your pain, but it’s time to bite the bullet.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is facing a cash crunch. It’s funding from the province is down $8 million over the past three years, in part due to declining school enrollments and inefficient use of school space. In turn, part of the reason for this is that many of its buildings were constructed years ago to accommodate neighbourhoods which, at the time, were bursting to the seams with young families and their children.

Today these are “mature” neighbourhoods, where few residents have school-aged children anymore. That’s not gonna change anytime soon.

They’re old, expensive to maintain, and maybe half full.

There is also intense competition from the French public board, as well as Catholic English and French boards. Because their enrolments are growing and they aren’t saddled with aging buildings in kid-free areas of the city, these three boards are constructing new schools at breakneck pace to keep up with demand.

Many of them in new neighbourhoods where new families are raising young children.

Some folks like the perceived benefits of either a francophone education, or an education which includes faith components. While the public board does offer a variety of french-language programs, it’s not the same as being immersed in a francophone environment. And this is a government town. Like it or not, being fluently bilingual is a big asset.

On the faith side, the public board is a bit hamstrung due to the diversity of its students.

So, schools like Rideau High School, J.H. Putman, Century, D. Aubrey Moodie and three others are on the block for closure. The votes happen tonight (Wednesday) and next week.

Been there, done that

That’s the background. Now, for a bit of personal perspective. Several years ago when our three children attended St. Rita Catholic school in Nepean, there was talk it could be considered for closure, reassignment or that the school boundaries might change.

Our children brought home notes explaining the situation. As a newspaper editor, I was already aware of the possibility and my wife and I had discussed it.

We loved St. Rita, it’s a great school with great teachers and was close to the house. Lots of programs for the kids. We were a bit surprised it could even be in the mix.

J.H. Putman Public School.

J.H. Putman Public School is one of 5 elementary schools up for closure by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. (Google image)

Our children, understandably, were a bit upset. This could mean big changes for them. New school, new environment, new teachers, new friends. Some of our friends were really angry. As some of you are now.

But instead of jumping up and down with rage, we sat our children down and had a chat about the time we had to move. Physically move, our whole family five hours away from their old hometown to a new opportunity in Ottawa.

We talked about how we met new people, moved into a nice new home, found new things for them to get involved in. We kept on living, and in all honesty, we actually improved our lives.

Not because of what we left behind, but because of the work we put into building a great life in a new city.

We told them that if they had to change schools, it would be much easier than that move, which had separated us from all of our close family, old friends, etc. etc. etc. We explained that some of their teachers might move with them, and some of their friends. That they could remain as friends with children they already knew AND would have the chance to meet new friends.

We told them they’d still be able to learn all the things they wanted to learn and that they might even gain new opportunities from a change in schools.

Half-full schools a waste

Then we hugged them and told them we would be there for them. Funny thing was, they were smiling and looking forward to a challenge once we were all done. Sure, they were still a bit nervous, but they knew it would be okay, no matter what happened.

We had no plans to fight the proposed changes, which we recognized were difficult but necessary. In the end, we did not have to uproot our children, but we were fully prepared to deal with it if it happened.

Aging, half-full schools are money sinks. They can’t offer all the programs available at other institutions because they don’t have enough staff, or enough kids to fill a myriad of clubs, organizations and teams. They pull badly needed resources from other sites.

The closure of a school is not the end of a neighbourhood. I’m willing to bet virtually any program offered during, or after, class at any of these sites can be duplicated in another facility. With a higher student population, it’s much more likely to be successful.

Are these decisions about dollars? Sure they are. Schools are damned expensive to run.

Are the trustees perfect? No. But they face a near-impossible task trying to balance the best interests of ALL the students, and their staff.

No one chooses to make a decision like this, nor is the board “targeting” a particular group of kids or parents or neighbourhoods. No one likes telling parents they’ll have to uproot their kids and help them adjust to something new. But making tough decisions, and learning to adapt to change are parts of life.

This has to be done, and the boards have moved heaven and earth in the past to keep these schools functioning.

Now, it’s time to let them go and look forward.

Background Stories:

Ottawa Citizen:  Ottawa’s three smaller school boards don’t plan to close any schools as their enrolment increases

CBC:  Parents threaten to change boards over public school closures

What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts or experiences.

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