What do Don Cherry, triathlete Simon Whitfield, the Tragically Hip, Robertson Davies, and Sir John A. Macdonald have in common? They all attended 221-year-old Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, the latest historic, fully enrolled school placed on death row by a local school board in Ontario.
Earlier this month, trustees from the Limestone District School Board voted 5-4 to shutter Kingston’s only downtown high school, dispersing more than 1,100 students, and creating a ‘school desert’ for more than 10,000 property taxpayers. Integral to the decision is a request to the provincial Liberal government to guarantee and finance a 25-year loan for $30-million for the construction of a new school on a site distant from the downtown residential neighbourhood.
In Ontario, communities from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Sudbury, facing declining enrollments, have been told to take their medicine and have watched in horror as students are consolidated into larger more remote education ‘factories.’ School boards are encouraged in this endeavour by funding promises from the Ministry of Education that heavily favours new construction over building renovation. Busing is funded through a separate – and seemingly unlimited – budget, removing any real incentive for boards to preserve community schools and promote walkability for students. While the provincial framework guiding such school review recommends consideration of the value of schools for communities and the local economy, there is little evidence that this occurs with any depth. Trustees do not feel that this is their job.
As a magnet school, KCVI serves students from across the city. Despite being located in a largely professional neighbourhood adjacent to Queen’s University, the student body is socio-economically diverse and inclusive as well as academically ambitious. Over the past 16 years enrollment has remained stable while other high schools in central Kingston have lost more than 40 per cent of their student populations.
Despite chronic deprivation of capital funds (less than $10,000 of the $43-million received by the board for urgent capital renewal of its building portfolio, was spent on the school - for ‘dust collection’), KCVI’s building, parts of which are more than 100 years old are rated to be in superior condition to two of the other three school buildings being considered in the review process. This week, the Heritage Canada Foundation placed KCVI on its top-10 national endangered building list.
Historic downtown schools seem particularly vulnerable to school closure. Peterborough’s PVCS was closed in 2012 despite a long record of academic excellence, a unique integrated arts program and healthy enrolment. It was noted by observers in Peterborough’s school debate that rural trustees representing districts outside the city limits drove the final closure vote. The vote in Kingston exhibited the same rural-urban divide seen in Peterborough. Four of the five votes supporting KCVI closure came from Trustees representing municipalities outside of Kingston.
This urban-rural tension is an effect of school board amalgamation in the 1990’s, creating shared oversight of schools across traditional municipal boundaries. Amalgamation requires urban schools to subsidize rural schools and wrenches control from the individuals elected to represent urban school areas.
The Ontario government has chosen to go silent on this issue. All that we hear is that these are local decisions by elected Trustees. But trustee have become nothing more than rubber stamps to the recommendations of the director and staff, who are tied intimately to the ministry of education.
Former Premier Dalton McGuinty was known as the ‘Education Premier’. His government happily publicized their record of school enhancements such as full-day kindergarten and new school construction. Less well publicized has been the strife and lasting damage as schools have been shuttered in communities across the province. Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former school trustee, seems oblivious to the wasteful and destructive effects of school closure. She was most recently seen in Kingston touring two shiny new glass and steel elementary schools (one housing more than 800 students, already full within six months of opening and locally derided as a disaster) erected by the Limestone Board. Five local schools were closed in favour of these new education factories.
Sir John A’s bicentennial will be celebrated in 2015. By then, Kingston will know whether the Provincial Liberals have allotted $30-million to close his still-thriving alma mater.
Lindsay Davidson is mother of a grade 11 student at KCVI, former parent representative on the PARC committee and member of Save Kingston City Schools. She is a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon and medical educator and was recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Award for excellence in teaching at Queen’s University in 2012.