By Justin Prince
The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board’s trustees have decided to start three accommodation reviews which, if approved, could close and consolidate schools in Amherstburg, Leamington and Windsor West.
The proposals, which were put forward by the board’s administration, could potentially lead to the closures of St. Bernard Catholic Elementary School in Amherstburg, St. John Catholic Elementary School in Windsor and St. Louis Catholic Elementary School in Leamington in June 2016. The proposals would also create two middle schools at Assumption College Catholic High School and Cardinal Carter Catholic Secondary School for students in Grades 7 and 8. The trustees voted to start all three studies on a modified process at a school board meeting Nov. 24.
The school board is required to hold one public meeting with the school communities affected and one school board meeting before it makes its final decision.
The WECDSB currently has about 3,000 empty student spaces in its system. Paul Picard, the director of education for the WECDSB, said the board was also concerned with the number of students at its secondary schools.
“If the trustees ultimately accept these recommendations or some modifications thereof, we will get our empty space total down to below 1,000 which is optimal as far as the board is concerned,” said Picard after the meeting. “It will also maximize our secondary schools so they do not become at-risk.”
Picard said during the board meeting that empty spaces in schools have become a focus for the Ontario Ministry of Education. He said it should be for the board too because it is losing money from the empty seats that could be used for funding school programs. The school board has closed eight schools since 2005.
The WECDSB is now starting to look better financially. The board is reporting a surplus of about $5.1 million for the end of the 2014-15 school year. It also has an accumulated surplus worth more than $18 million, much of which can be put towards the board’s $14 million capital deficit.
“The exercise of accommodation reviews, as I’ve said as we’ve gone through this multiple times, is extremely difficult,” said Picard during the meeting. “It’s difficult on school communities. It’s difficult on trustees. It’s difficult on students. It’s difficult on staff. We’re all in this. But much of what we’ve been able to achieve over the course of the last few years has involved effective fiscal management.”
As part of the proposals, St. Bernard’s entire school population would be consolidated with Stella Maris Catholic Elementary School in Amherstburg.
The junior kindergarten to Grade 6 student populations of St. John and St. Louis would also be consolidated with nearby elementary schools. Students in grades 7 and 8 at the consolidated schools will attend the proposed middle schools.
The proposed middle schools are also slightly different. At Assumption, the WECDSB would expand its International Baccalaureate programs to be offered to younger students. Meanwhile, the school board would create a campus-style community with Queen of Peace and Cardinal Carter, which are located next to each other.
“It’s a disappointing decision because our community at St. Louis is thriving and has been thriving,” said St. Louis’s Catholic School Advisory Council chairperson Marianne Baeiri. “It’s a small-knit community, a small community you don’t want to mess with.”
Emerson Valley, the treasurer for St. John’s Catholic School Advisory Council, said he thought the decision to start the review for his school was inevitable. An accommodation review involving the school was done in 2009. In the end, St. Francis Catholic Elementary School was closed and was consolidated with St. John. If the current proposal is approved, Windsor’s west side would have one Catholic elementary school – which would be west of the Ambassador Bridge – and one Catholic secondary school.
“It’s a huge concern,” said trustee Fabio Costante, who represents Windsor West wards. “These are concerns we’re going to discuss moving forward. What needs to be in the discussion and in the report is all the risks that are involved with having just one grade school and all the risks of having a huge geographic area that would have no Catholic presence.”
Valley said it is important for the voices of the parents and students to be heard and that the school community plans to work with the board to create the best outcome possible for their students.
“Long-term, we have to now convince the trustees that we have a good vision and our vision is not the same as what the board has presented,” said Valley, who has been in his position for four years. “We’re going to work towards having our vision executed.”
The final decision will not be made for each of the accommodation reviews until March 2016. The proposals can also still be changed before the final decision is made.