School board still awaiting word on amalgamation

Heather Latter

The Rainy River District School Board still is waiting to hear whether it will be chosen to merge with another nearby board, such as Keewatin-Patricia, as the provincial government considers amalgamating school boards as a cost-saving measure.
Director of Education Heather Campbell updated the board at its regular meeting last Tuesday, noting the Ministry of Education is expected to release its draft plan for consultation sometime this fall.
“So we’ll wait to see,” she remarked, adding more consultations will be held based on which school boards are targeted.
Campbell said she attended several consultations sessions over the summer, including one June 26 held by the Ministry of Education in Thunder Bay, which she tuned in via teleconference.
“The ministry expressed concerns for future sustainability of boards in light of the current and predicted economic future of the province,” she noted.
“The impact of salaries over time was mentioned as a reason for considering all possible cost-savings, including amalgamation.”
Campbell added ministry officials shared their concern over the size of school boards in Northwestern Ontario and the potential inability to provide programming due to conflicting operational costs.
“In addition, the principles of the amalgamation consultation process, both in the drafting of plans and in the actual mergers, were affirmed, with the value for money, the retention of local presence, and the honouring of separate French and Catholic boards being key considerations,” she explained.
A few days after this session, Campbell spoke with deputy minister George Zegarac as a follow-up to the regional consultation.
“From this conversation, I learned that the process is presently invitational, whereby boards that want to amalgamate can elect to do so,” she indicated. “There is no ‘list’ of boards that the ministry is eyeing for amalgamation.
“But small boards that do not have secondary schools and very small boards, for example, less than 1,000 students, are being encouraged to consider a merger,” she noted.
Campbell said the concern over the local board’s ability to continue with the removal of the Declining Enrolment Grant was mentioned by Zegarac.
However, the Rainy River District School Board presently does not rely on the Declining Enrolment Grant to support its administrative and support staffing.
“I also expressed concern for local voice, especially with respect to the many First Nation communities that we serve, and for the potential loss of specialized programming due to changes in grant funding due to amalgamation,” Campbell remarked.
Campbell then attended the annual Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE) meeting in Toronto in August, where a topic of interest was school board amalgamation.
“School boards of approximately 10,000 students are concerned that they are possible targets for a merger or re-organization with two adjoining boards,” she said.
Campbell cited attaining a district school board size of roughly 20,000 students has been proposed as a potential ministry target for merger or re-organization.
At this point, however, only two southern Ontario Catholic boards are being amalgamated.
“We have to hold their feet to the fire and ensure this is a transparent process,” said board chair Michael Lewis, noting he feels plans are being made “behind their backs” instead of out in the open.
“We don’t want to repeat mistakes made in the 1990s,” he stressed.
In 1997, in fact, Lewis was the director of eduction for both the North Shore Board of Eduction and the Espanola Board of Education.
As well, he sat on both the Local Education Improvement Committees as the Algoma District School Board and the Rainbow District School Board were created through forced amalgamation.
“The process was long and arduous, and was unsettling for board employees, parents, and communities,” Lewis recalled.