News

Parents push to keep Our Lady of LaSalette school open

By Laura Broadley, St. Thomas Times-Journal

Amanda Bakker, who has a child in Senior Kindergarten at Our Lady of La Salette school, attended a public meeting Wednesday night of the Catholic school board's accommodation review committee to ask questions concerning the potential closure of the school. LAURA BROADLEY/SIMCOE REFORMER

Amanda Bakker, who has a child in Senior Kindergarten at Our Lady of La Salette school, attended a public meeting Wednesday night of the Catholic school board's accommodation review committee to ask questions concerning the potential closure of the school. LAURA BROADLEY/SIMCOE REFORMER

LASALETTE - 

Parents want their small, rural school to stay open, but Our Lady of La Salette school remains on the brink of closure.

The Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board held an accommodation review committee (ARC) public meeting Wednesday at Our Lady of La Salette in which parents and other members of the public came out to defend their school against potential closure.

Helen Mels is hoping the school stays open; her daughter is in Senior Kindergarten.

“I think it's important to keep it open because it's a rural community. We are farmers. We support the rural area,” Mels said. “We need to keep these small, rural areas thriving. Schools are the centre of rural communities.”

The ARC is working through options to solve enrolment issues that are plaguing the rural elementary school.

Enrolment has decreased by 66 per cent at Our Lady of La Salette since 2001-02 and the 52 registered students currently at the school leaves the utilization (enrolment/capacity) at only 28 per cent.

“Declining enrolment is a provincial issue. It's not just this board,” said Tom Grice, superintendent of business for the school board.

Grice said the board is pressured by the Ministry of Education to not “put money into empty spaces.”

“The ministry has a defined amount of money and they would like to have that money funneled to children in the classroom. What's happening now is they're funneling the money, a portion of it, to providing resources to empty spaces.”

The lack of utilization of facilities isn't only a problem for Our Lady of La Salette, but is a wider issue within Norfolk County. The utilization of Norfolk Catholic elementary schools is projected to decrease over the next 15 years by eight per cent while Brant County, Brantford and Haldimand schools' utilization is projected to increase.

A board staff report recommended the closure of Our Lady of La Salette after reviewing trend data for enrolment, which they say is in compliance with the Ministry of Education Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines.

The ARC, comprised of three groups each representing one of the schools involved, has now been tasked with making a recommendation based on four options to the school board trustees, who will then make a final decision on the fate of Our Lady of La Salette.

Option 1 would see Our Lady of La Salette close and the students accommodated at St. Frances Cabrini School in Delhi.

Option 2 sees Our Lady of La Salette closing and all students from Our Lady of La Salette accommodated at St. Bernard of Clairvaux School in Waterford.

Option 3 again sees Our Lady of La Salette closing with the students being divided between St. Frances and St. Bernard.

Option 4 places a two-year moratorium on the accommodation review process and leaves Our Lady of La Salette open. This would leave time for the school board to determine whether a French immersion program at Our Lady of La Salette is a viable option. It would also leave time for the Ministry of Education to give direction about keeping rural schools open.

Mels is hoping for Option 4. She said the board needs to focus its attention on how to save rural schools instead of closing them.

“Our plan with the moratorium is to buy time, to buy time to research ways to utilize our empty space, research ways to increase our student population.”

Amanda Bakker, who has a child in Senior Kindergarten, is critical of the ARC process.

“The whole process is very frustrating because it feels as though the responsibility falls on us, as a community, to come up with solutions,” Bakker said. “It's a lot to navigate. There have been several questions, several issues raised with the board that we feel didn't necessarily get addressed.”

A final public meeting will take place on Feb. 1 prior to a special school board meeting on Feb. 15 in which trustees will be presented with the final staff report. This will be followed by a public delegation on Mar. 2. The final decision will be presented on Mar. 23.