Emotions run high at Alberton closure meeting

A single question united the 100 distraught parents with toddlers in tow, worried grandmothers, and anxious former students who jammed into the Alberton Central School gym Tuesday night.
Why are you closing our school?
Rainy River District School Board trustees and administration fielded a barrage of questions for more than two hours in the last of three school closure meetings.
In sometimes heated exchanges, parents asked whether the board considered amalgamating Sixth Street and Alexander MacKenzie schools with J. W. Walker and leave Alberton open, bringing grade seven and eight students back to Alberton to inflate enrolment, or even turning the school over to the public to run independently.
“It’s obvious here that you’re quite concerned about the students in Alberton,” board chair Gord McBride said when addressing the often emotional crowd.
“But the board has to be concerned with 3,000 students from Atikokan to Rainy River to Morson. That’s 17 schools, and we’re trying to do what’s right for everybody,” he stressed.
In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, McBride said while Alberton has a capacity of 98 students, it presently only had about 70 and enrolment in 2002 was expected to decline to 67—and continue to drop in subsequent years.
He added the school needed $675,000 in renovations, such as washroom facilities, a computer room, and bringing things up to fire and safety codes.
It later was explained by trustee Frank Sheppard that the school board only had an annual budget of $350,000 to upgrade facilities in all of its schools. And that under the new provincial funding formula, the board simply cannot raise taxes to get more money as it had in the past.
“There were funds allotted to the school for repairs that were never made,” Danielle Robinson argued during her presentation to the board.
Murray Quinn, superintendent of plant and maintenance for the board, explained replacing the heating system in one school alone is costing more than its annual budget in upgrades.
“There’s a list of things that should have been done at all our schools,” agreed Sheppard.
Alberton councillor and parent Bill Morrison Jr. said that $675,000 may not seem that much when compared to the costs incurred by sending kids to an expanded J.W. Walker.
“It seems it’ll be a lot of money to transport these kids day after day to Fort Frances,” he remarked.
Laura Mills, chief financial officer for the board, said the cost of additional bus services for kids from the three schools slated for closure would cost $30,000 a year.
That was compared with the almost $400,000 saved in operating costs by consolidating the schools into Walker.
Parents also addressed concerns over traffic at Walker school, and the fact children as young as five would be expected to endure half-hour bus rides to and from school.
They asked whether the board would consider busing kids to Crossroads School in Devlin instead of Walker, or changing the boundaries so that some Robert Moore kids went to Alberton.
There was even the off-the-cuff suggestion of a low-interest loan from the local Catholic school board in light of its unexpected surplus.
One parent, who moved to the area six months ago, summed up what the room was feeling.
“What do we need to do to keep this school open?” Brian Lemay asked. “What do we need to do to work with you to keep it open?”
Henry Van Ael said he felt like the decision already had been made as he watched the exchange.
“One hundred percent of the people who responded to a survey said they wanted to keep the school open. What more proof do you want?” he asked.
While the meeting was heated at times, with trustees such as Martin Darrah being asked how they can vote for the school closure process when the people they represent are against it, the crowd remained calm for the most part.
Afterwards, McBride said he thought the meeting went well.
“There’s always a lot of emotion when you’re dealing with the possibility of possibly your school closing,” he remarked. “I felt it was a good meeting, a good exchange of information.
“I want to salute you guys,” Lemay said near the close of the meeting. “Don’t confuse anger at the situation with a personal attack. Please make a compassionate vote.”
A final vote on the fate of the three schools being considered for closure will likely be made May 7.