Board eyeing consolidation of Huffman, Robert Moore

FORT FRANCES—With the Ministry of Education having designated three of its schools as potentially “prohibitive to repair” (PTR), the Rainy River District School Board is moving forward with the PTR process and will be submitting a business case to the ministry proposing the consolidation of Robert Moore and F.H. Huffman schools here.
Laura Mills, the board’s superintendent of business, noted the process is a lengthy one subject to ministry approval and public consultation.
“This is simply our thinking and our priorities that we’d like to set out with the ministry,” she said during a meeting of the board’s finance committee Tuesday night.
“There will be a lot of discussion around that.”
New guidelines regarding school closure policy in the province also will ensure there is a thorough public consultation process over a period of seven months.
The ministry identified Robert Moore and Donald Young School in Emo as PTR candidate facilities about three years ago. Huffman was added to the list recently.
PTR schools are those where “it’s cheaper to rebuild than to fix,” Mills explained.
The ministry requires boards with schools on the candidate list to submit a business case outlining their priorities for how they would like to deal with them.
Those businesses cases must be submitted by Nov. 30.
The options the ministry has set out for the boards are:
•a single school solution, where the existing school is taken down and replaced with a new one;
•a multiple school solution, where two or more schools are consolidated into an existing school with renovations or additions—as was done with J. W. Walker here in 2003—or where two or more schools are consolidated into a new facility; or
•a solution to retire the school and move those students into existing facilities.
Mills said the administration recommends their first priority should be the consolidation of Robert Moore and Huffman, with a rebuilt school in Emo as the second priority.
“The ministry then reviews the cases and releases preliminary approvals,” Mills noted, though stressing not all cases will receive approval.
“There isn’t going to be enough money for all the PTR schools in the province to be fixed,” she warned.
The ministry has not yet given any dates for when it will announce which plans are approved. About 100 schools across the province will receive the Good Places to Learn—PTR funding.
Mills said the consolidation of the two Fort Frances schools is appropriate as “Huffman is a feeder school to Robert Moore already.”
Huffman school teaches children from JK-Grade 3. From there, they move on to Robert Moore, which runs from JK-Grade 8.
“It is a good fit,” Mills said.
She also noted the example of the consolidation of J.W. Walker, Alexander MacKenzie, Sixth Street, and Alberton Schools—and its positive effect on the problem of declining enrolment locally.
“Our decline has not been as significant as projected when they were separate schools,” Mills said. “[Walker] is a magnet school right now. We seem to be drawing more students than we anticipated.”
This is likely because of the new, high-tech facilities at the school. Something similar could be planned for a new consolidated school here, she noted.
“It could be a draw for aboriginal culture,” she added, noting there is a large population of aboriginal students at both Robert Moore and Huffman.
Huffman currently has about 80 students, but that is expected to drop to 60 in the next three years. The board already is supplementing Huffman’s plant operations costs and will continue to do so.
Robert Moore has just under 400 students. A consolidated school would likely house a maximum of 500 students, Mills said.
“This isn’t going to be a mega, huge school,” she noted.
Back on Oct. 31, the Ministry of Education released the Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines for school boards.
The purpose of the guidelines are to help boards develop new policy to replace existing school closure policies, and to create “meaningful community participation that will focus on the value of a school to its students, to the board, to the community, and to the local economy,” according to a letter from Education minister Kathleen Wynne.
“The board has to review these guidelines and come up with a new policy [as of March 31, 2007],” Mills said.
So should the ministry approve the local board’s business case, it will have to follow the new policy, which will include a minimum of four public meetings held a minimum of 60 days after the board’s announcement of intent to review accommodation.
The total consultation process is seven months, and “is necessary before any action can be taken,” Mills stressed.
“With those consultations, you’re bringing in a lot more information,” she said. “Just because we’ve announced a plan doesn’t mean it will end up that way.
“It could change and grow in the middle, or it could die.”
Also at Tuesday night’s finance committee meeting, trustees heard a presentation from representatives of Honeywell, which was commissioned in April to do a study for an energy retrofit and renewal plan for the board’s schools.
“Since April, Honeywell engineers went through every one of our facilities,” noted superintendent of plant operations Raymond Roy.
“Many of our schools are at least 40 years old,” he added, while noting that funding for major repairs and maintenance is limited.
In its report, Honeywell identified about 240 measures to implement in the schools to improve both energy efficiency and the students’ learning environment.
The measures include replacing lighting fixtures, replacing boilers and pipes, weather stripping, and installing air handling units with carbon dioxide sensors, among many others.
“In general, the kids pick up on it. Children are more susceptible to environmental changes than adults are,” said Michael Pringle, business development manager for Honeywell.
Should the board agree to sign a 10-year contract, Honeywell would guarantee $162,473 a year in utility and operational savings, for an investment of $2,582,773 in the project.
About $900,000 of the cost would be covered by the Good Places to Learn grant while another $582,773 would come from School Renewal Funding.
The local board would have to finance the remaining $1.1 million. That money could come from the board’s existing reserves, or through external financing.
“Many of the projects identified in the report are renewal needs that must be addressed either immediately or over the next few years,” Mills noted in her report to the committee.
“This project will stretch our future school renewal funding,” she warned.
Beyond financial savings, the measures would improve the school environments for staff and students.
“I think this is a very valuable project to the board,” Mills said.
“To me, it’s a good feeling to know that we are moving to an energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly approach in education,” echoed Education Director Jack McMaster.
“I think it’s a very smart move for us.”
The committee agreed to recommend the board move forward with the project. A resolution to that effect will be presented at its meeting Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at Robert Moore School.
The committee agreed to hold off on a recommendation on how to cover the remaining $1.1 million cost until the board’s audited financial statements come back next month.
(Fort Frances Times)