Those were the words of Doug Shearer, chairman of the District School Board Ontario North East (DSBONE) board of trustees, on Thursday at the second of four public meetings concerning the future of four schools in the cityâ€™s East End.
The potential re-shuffling of schools is largely due to a steady decline in enrollment at Roland Michener Secondary School (RMSS). School occupancy numbers sit at less than 50% and are projected to drop to 37% by 2017.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to sustain a strong educational component on the East side of Timmins,â€ said Shearer.
â€œTo do that, we need to move the 7th and 8th graders into Roland Michener Secondary School. When we do that, we wonâ€™t have sufficient use of the remaining English elementary schools to keep them open, so weâ€™re having to choose between one or the other.â€
The other major players in the shuffle are three elementary schools â€” Bertha Shaw, Golden Avenue and Frank P. Krznaric Whitney Public. Meetings have been held at all three schools as part of the accommodation review process, and have included guided tours of the three facilities.
Close to 40 people, including parents, students and teachers, took part in the meeting on Thursday at Frank P. Krznaric Whitney Public School. A short list of specific concerns were raised at the session, but Shearer repeated many times that a decision has yet to be made.
â€œNot at all. We hear lots of rumours about how the boardâ€™s already got pre-conceived notions â€” not in any way,â€ he explained. â€œWe have to sit down after we get this information and try to weed that through, which is going to be the best option.â€
For those hoping RMSS stays open, the facts regarding schools in Ontario are grim. Shearer said there are currently 300,000 vacant spots in schools across the province and that 500 schools have closed since 200, â€œwith more being reviewed for further closure.â€
Shearer responded to a question by Coun. John Curley by admitting the boardâ€™s efforts wonâ€™t mean anything is set in stone for schools in the East End.
â€œWhat is possible is the ministry may then close the high school at Roland Michener, consolidate the three elementary schools . What weâ€™re trying to do is be proactive to show the ministry that weâ€™ve got this in control and weâ€™re maintaining a strong education component in the East side of Timmins,â€ he said. â€œSo no, it doesnâ€™t come with a guarantee.â€
Curley said the constant uncertainty was disappointing for students and parents. The general feeling at the meeting seemed to be that many parents were simply seeking a firm answer and direction.
â€œI hear what youâ€™re saying as a school board, the province calls the shots,â€ said Curley. â€œAs new parties take over in running this province, things can change again. Things can change again because of the Spring election taking place next year.â€
If RMSS has too few students â€” around 250, with a capacity for more than 500 â€” Bertha Shaw faces the opposite problem, albeit on a smaller scale. The elementary school is close to exceeding its limit of 210 students.
The larger Golden Avenue and Frank P. Krznaric schools are being considered as new locations for Bertha Shaw students, as is RMSS. Other options would include keeping Bertha Shaw open and closing one of the other two elementary schools.
Timmins resident Mario Barbuto is the father of two children who attend Frank P. Krznaric, named for the longtime former principal of Whitney Public School. Barbuto stood up at the microphone during question period to expound the benefits of the school, which is located on the eastern edge of Porcupine.
He said the school was large, proactive to a learning environment and met a wide range of requirements for students. Benefits listed included a functional shop, a full-sized running track, a wide range of sporting possibilities, wide open green spaces and dedicated drama and music rooms.
Another resident, Lyn Klimack, said she transferred from RMSS to Timmins High & Vocational School (TH&VS) while she was in high school a number of years ago.
â€œI went to RMSS for two-and-a-half years, they had all kinds of programs they offered the children and teens,â€ said Klimack. â€œNow, Iâ€™ve heard 90% of those programs have been taken away because thereâ€™s not enough students there. Wouldnâ€™t it be prudent to put all those high schools together so they could all have those programs offered?
â€œI was a number at TH, but I had all the classes I needed to get what I needed from the school. Right now, thereâ€™s a lot of classes you just canâ€™t get because thereâ€™s not enough students to operate. Wouldnâ€™t it be better if they did get transferred to TH?â€
DSBONEâ€™s director of education Linda Knight responded by saying she believed people in Porcupine and South Porcupine â€œdeserved their own school.â€
â€œCould we move all students in THVS? Absolutely. Is it going to give you more options? No,â€ suggested Knight. â€œItâ€™s going to put more students into classes, thatâ€™s larger classes. If we keep RMSS open, what (the Ministry of Education) do is alternate offerings of programs. There are great opportunities.
â€œI think the people in this end deserve the opportunity to rebuild that school. Maybe down the road, itâ€™s a JK to Grade 12 school. But we keep a visible education facility operating in this end of Timmins and we donâ€™t have to transport it to the other end of Timmins. I really believe this is our opportunity, thinking forward and coming together to think of possibilities to rejuvenate that school.â€
Shearer said he doesnâ€™t blame people for wanting to â€œtake ownership of their schools, of their communities and of their neighbourhoods.
"We are taking questions, we are taking submissions, then weâ€™ll start the process of trying to weed through as to what our options are, whatâ€™s the best choice,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a difficult process. There is no smooth way to do this. Someoneâ€™s not going to be happy. But what weâ€™re trying to do is make the very best effort we can to be open with the people and have their contribution, so whatever we decide, weâ€™ve done the best we can to involve the community.
â€œIâ€™ve been through this before and itâ€™s a very hard thing to do.â€
Another meeting is planned for Nov. 13 at Golden Avenue Public School, with a final public accommodation review session taking place in December. A verdict from the board is expected to be announced sometime around April 2014.