St. Mary school gets one-year reprieve

By Lindsey Parry

Parents heaved a collective sigh of relief Wednesday after a welcome but ambiguous decision to keep St. Mary elementary school on Beech Street open.

The decision passed unanimously during a meeting of Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board trustees at St. Pius X high school. About 200 people attended to voice their concerns about the possible closure of Catholic elementary schools.

“I’m just thrilled (about the decision),” said Lynn Norris, chair of the St. Mary school council. “It was more than we dared hope for.”

Other Centretown schools have not been so lucky lately. In February, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted to close McNabb Park public school, despite pleas for a one-year reprieve.

Last fall, the Catholic board had originally targeted St. Mary to be closed in the 1999-2000 school year. The report recommending its closure said the school had 145 students, in a building with the capacity for 259.

But while the announcement was applauded by some parents, it left others confused.

“I wasn’t quite sure (whether we’d be put back on a closure list next year),” said parent and council member Mary Haller. “I think the trustees were quite clear that they want St. Mary to remain open, and that they don’t want it to go back on a list. But I’m not sure administration understood that.”

Trustees agreed that St. Mary and neighbouring facility St. Thomas Aquinas will each undergo a review of facilities, “to determine the most appropriate facility for the St. Mary students.”

The St. Thomas building is currently leased by the board to the Joan of Arc Academy, a small private school for girls. That lease will expire in August 2001.

Board chair Art Lamarche later acknowledged the vagueness of the decision.

“For now, the school is open, and while it’s staying open, our administration will review all the boundaries, buildings, and respective area,” he said.

“Once all those (review) questions are answered, then they’ll come back to the board and we’ll make a decision as to which way to go. There’s been a decision made this evening. Now, we’re going to have to find out the ramifications.”

Lamarche predicted renovations to one or both buildings, suggesting the addition of a gymnasium to St. Mary. The board says if St. Mary students had to move, they would most likely only go next door to the St. Thomas building.

Ottawa West trustee John Chiarelli said that area schools could get the brunt of St. Mary’s good news.

“There is a possibility,” he said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t have to happen. We’re hoping that we can come up with creative ways of keeping them all open.”

Chiarelli added he had always questioned why St. Mary — the newest school in the area built in 1964 — was slated to close in the first place.

“I was surprised personally that the school even came up under consideration because it’s got everything it requires to keep it open.”

Meanwhile, parents of St. Mary students were happy with the board’s decision.

“Now that we can promote that we’re open, people can now register their children here,” said Haller. “They need to know we’re the jewel in the crown of the area, and now they can come by, visit, and find out for themselves.”