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Thursday February 23, 2017, 2:11 am

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School board considers Leamington options
By Bryan Jessop

The general public has weighed in on the variety of potential changes for the future of five Leamington public elementary schools, although final decisions are still months away.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, the Greater Essex County District School Board hosted a public meeting to hear input from parents on five different Program and Accommodation Review Council (PARC) plans that could be implemented in upcoming school years. The gathering was held at Leamington District Secondary School, where various representatives of the GECDSB fielded questions, comments and concerns about options that could include the permanent closures of two schools.

Plans within PARC’s initial report focus on all of Leamington’s GECDSB elementary schools with the exception of East Mersea. Local school board trustee Dave Taves estimated that about 100 people attended the public meeting at LDSS earlier this month, where the most common concern voiced appeared to be regarding the future of Gore Hill. Others in attendance asked questions on the potential closure of Mill Street, the only of the five schools which has not been treated to major upgrades in recent years.

The first of five proposals suggests the closure of Mill Street Public School effective as of June, 2017. If carried through, current Mill Street students would be dispersed to Mount Carmel-Blytheswood if living on or north of Talbot Street West or to Queen Elizabeth if living south of Talbot Street West.

Secondly, the board plans to submit a School Consolidation Capital (SCC) request to the Ministry of Education for a new 550-pupil school that would be built on the current M.D. Bennie site on Sherk Street. If approved, the new school would host M.D. Bennie and Gore Hill students, triggering the closure of the Mersea Road 1 school upon completion of construction on the new building. If M.D. Bennie is denied funding for a new school, Gore Hill would remain open under the current set of plans.

The third proposal would address the board’s underutilization issue in Leamington. A dual track French Immersion program would be phased in at Gore Hill starting in September of this year with Junior Kindergarten, with a grade to be added in each of the following years. The boundaries for FI would encompass all Leamington GECDSB schools. If the board’s SCC is approved and Gore Hill is closed, French Immersion services would continue as planned at the new M.D. Bennie site.

If closure of Mill Street is approved as proposed in the first option, the school board will also pursue MOE funding to construct a new Queen Elizabeth building as its first priority.  The second priority of the fourth proposal would be a five-room addition to the existing Queen Elizabeth building. In the event that both components are denied by the Ministry, there would still be enough empty spaces at surrounding schools — including M.D. Bennie — to accommodate those presently attending Mill Street.

The fifth proposal would also address empty classroom spaces. If approved, boundary changes would include transferring M.D. Bennie’s northern region to Mount-Carmel Blytheswood and the Queen Elizabeth territory west of Erie Street to M.D. Bennie. Also, Queen Elizabeth’s zone that presently includes Antonio Street and up to and including Talbot Street West would become part of Gore Hill’s catchment area. These adjustments would take effect September of this year, although pupils living in the affected areas would have the option of continually attending their current schools until Grade 8 without transportation services.

Taves admitted that the details of the proposals are complex and that the implementation of some would hinge on the approval of others.

“It’s a painful process to go through, so we’re trying to accomplish as much as we can at one time,” he explained, noting that the Ministry of Education tends to limit funding in underutilized areas. “There’s no top up funding (from the MOE) now, so it makes us look harder at our use of space. There’s not really good efficiency now and the opportunity for new school money only comes every so often.”

Taves also noted that it’s presently difficult to forecast what decisions will be made on each component of the PARC proposals. Before any closure decisions are made, the board’s 10 trustees and some members of administration will tour the buildings being reviewed.

“No conclusions have been drawn right now,” Taves said. “If we receive good reasons to keep Mill Street open, we’ll do that.”

The GECDSB trustees will begin voting on proposals in June of this year. Prior to that, another public meeting for PARC plans will be held at LDSS Thursday, Apr. 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Feedback can also be e-mailed to parc@publicboard.ca.

Factors often considered towards making decisions on school closures include the Facility Condition Index (FCI), where the dollar value of required repairs and upgrades according to the Total Capital Planning Solution is divided by the replacement value of the school as determined by the Ministry of Education. These figures are presented as percentages, with lower numbers indicating a school that would be less ideal to close. The five affected schools currently feature the following FCI numbers:

• Gore Hill — 29 per cent;

• M.D. Bennie — 27 per cent;

• Mill Street — 36 per cent;

• Mount Carmel-Blytheswood — 20 per cent;

• Queen Elizabeth — 16 per cent.

Gore Hill and Queen Elizabeth were each updated in the late 1990s while M.D. Bennie received its most recent major upgrades in the late 1980s, early ‘90s. Mount Carmel-Blytheswood was nearly doubled in size to accommodate the closure of Blytheswood Public School about 15 years ago. With the exception of port-a-packs, no major improvements have been made to Mill Street in recent years.

“Sometimes, older schools are in better shape because they’ve had more upgrades made to them,” Taves explained.

In operational costs, Mill Street is the most expensive among the five in both per student and per square metre ratios, $1,094.15 and $94.47, respectively. Gore Hill is third most expensive per student at $803.15 and cheapest per square metre at $53.66 while M.D. Bennie is second cheapest per student at $751.94 and second most expensive per square metre at $78.47. Mount Carmel-Blytheswood  is second most expensive per student at $995.90 and second cheapest per square metre at $75.27. Queen Elizabeth is the most cost effective per student at $681.50 and is in the middle of the pack per square metre at $78.03.

In use of available space, the five schools rank M.D. Bennie (90 per cent), Queen Elizabeth (86 per cent), Mill Street (79 per cent), Gore Hill (66 per cent) and Mount Carmel-Blytheswood (62 per cent).

Also pertaining to Leamington GECDSB schools, construction of the new Leamington District Secondary School is ahead of schedule. Taves explained that barring any unforeseen setbacks, the new high school will open in September as scheduled. A report on the school’s progress was last made on the same day as the PARC public meeting, where board members were informed that all remaining work is internal.

“It’s a new construction technique being used and we’re really excited about it — it’s very efficient,” Taves said.

 

 

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