Friday, October 29, 2010

Trustees have sharp learning curve on ARC timing

Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; published under the title "ARC timing will teach new trustees a lesson".

The future of Barrie’s downtown remains imperiled as the threat of Central Collegiate’s closure looms closer.

And for the first time, I retract something from an earlier column. Last April, I criticized MPP Aileen Carroll for securing funding for a secondary school in Essa, yet failing to do the same for Barrie Central. In her defense, Carroll has gone on record that it was the Essa school, not Central, which Simcoe School Board officials asked her to champion, so she did. This created a discrepancy: Board staff and Trustees have consistently maintained that rebuilding Central was their top capital priority during that time.

To reconcile this, I filed a Freedom of Information request to see just what the Board had lobbied for through our MPP. Was their messaging ambiguous? This week I got the response, and it confirms Carroll’s statement precisely. In the March 2008 meeting, the Board specifically asked her to lobby for Essa school funding, and only “shared thoughts” about a downtown secondary/elementary school.

It’s become clear over the last year that the Board is committed to closing Central instead of trying to rebuild; this new information indicates the attitude goes back further, to the time when a Central re-do was supposedly Job One.

Which brings us to now. A community consultation process called an accommodation review committee (ARC) began in September and is due to report in March. It may decide to endorse the staff option presented last month which recommends closing Central, sending students to other over-capacity schools in Barrie, hoping the Ministry of Education will then fund a brand new growth school to the south. Or, in theory, the ARC could come up with a plan for repairing or rebuilding Central, delaying the need for new schools until expansion lands are actually developed and populated.

But there’s a serious catch to this theory: the Ministry needs the board’s capital priorities expressed now, not next spring. The request can be revised in January 2011, but the ARC won’t report until March. How can the ARC recommend keeping Central open if the window for capital requests is closed? The staff option, supposedly unofficial and not in effect until the ARC reports and the Trustees decide, is already driving the capital requests which will determine Central’s fate.

At this point I don’t believe it’s enough to attend ARC meetings and let the process run its course. The timing seems to deny the ARC any chance of providing an option to keep all our 5 Barrie high schools open. The newly-elected Trustees must re-examine the ARC timing, provide more complete information, and keep options open with the Ministry rather than prejudicing funding requests against Central’s future.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

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