Catholic closures in limbo

By Chinta Puxley

Putting school closures off a year may not be enough to save Ottawa’s downtown Catholic schools.
As suburbs rapidly expand, downtown schools could still be sacrificed for new suburban schools.

The Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board announced the recommended closure of 10 schools Nov. 5, including Centretown’s St. Mary elementary school. The board at a meeting this week decided to delay any closure decision until next March.

In a surprise announcement Nov. 6, Premier Mike Harris gave the board another year to make the decision. Harris said the formula boards use to determine which schools close may change, throwing the board’s recommendations into question.

“The announcement caught us by surprise considering the board made an application to the minister for an extension of time . . . and we didn’t get what we asked for,” says Catholic board chair Ron Larkin.
“Our staff has been burning midnight oil to get a handle on the closure issue by the deadline Dec. 21, and then out of the blue, the premier makes this announcement.”

Two days before Harris’s announcement, the board found a way to turn closures into money for new suburban schools. Some Ottawa schools are half-full while many in the suburbs rely on portable classrooms.

“We need a minimum of five elementary schools to meet the growing demands of the outlying areas,” Larkin says, pointing to the communities of Barrhaven, Stittsville, Bridlewood, Cumberland and Gloucester. “They are getting bigger by the day.”

The Catholic board had 4,000 vacant pupil spaces to eliminate. The 10 recommended school closures would wipe out spaces for 5,000 pupils, leaving 1,000 children without schools. Under the province’s funding criteria, the board could build three new schools in the suburbs.

Although the impact of the premier’s announcement is yet unclear, Larkin says little has changed.
“While the announcement provides a bit of a respite, it doesn’t provide any solutions,” Larkin says. “They are forcing us to close schools to get entitlement for schools in growth areas.”

Anne Plante-Perkins, co-chair of the Catholic Parents’ Association, says the board should thoroughly study the closures from other angles.

“All we have is the staff report,” Plante-Perkins says. “It’s not the whole story. It looks at it strictly from facts and figures, not at community impact.”

The closure of downtown schools perpetuates a vicious cycle, Plante-Perkins argues. Parents move to the suburbs and increase the demand for schools. As enrolment decreases in the city, schools close, making downtown less attractive to families.

“The only people that will move there will be empty-nesters, single people and people without kids,” she says. “The only people left in the inner part of the city with kids will be people who cannot afford to move into the suburbs or in the ritzier part of the city.”

The premier’s announcement did little to relieve Marie Boyes, principal of St. Mary elementary school on Beech Avenue.

The school is one of the six Ottawa schools on the board’s chopping block. The 150 St. Mary pupils are supposed to move to two schools further west, St. George on Piccadilly Avenue and St. Elizabeth on Admiral Avenue.

“No one knows what the impact will be on us. We’re going to have to wait and see what happens,” Boyes says, adding the only information she has received is through media reports.

The Catholic board, in turn, has not yet decided how to proceed. That leaves Boyes and her students in limbo.