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'Exploding enrolment' adds to 'dire' need for new schools: board

Simcoe County trustees vow to hold province's feet to the flame to get additions and new builds approved and funded
Collingwood Collegiate Institute. Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday

It’s been nearly a year since the province’s Ministry of Education last put a call out for school board capital priorities, and even longer since the Simcoe County public school board has been approved for any of the new school or addition build requests from their list.

And with local school buildings crumbling and enrolment exploding, school board trustees decided last week that they aren’t going to take it quietly anymore.

During the Feb. 1 business and facilities standing committee meeting of the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), trustees voted in favour of sending a letter to the Ministry of Education to outline the need for greater provincial investment in SCDSB schools due to enrolment pressures in Simcoe County.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the community is feeling the pain of this,” said Collingwood/Wasaga Beach trustee Mike Foley. “We need to let the government know that it’s not just us, the feeling of inadequacy and the need for investment is coming from the community.”

“Ultimately, it’s the citizens of this community that are going to be paying for the penny-pinching of the provincial government,” he added.

New Tecumseth trustee Sarah Beitz suggested a letter be sent to the province every month until the board sees some change, which she said she may bring forward as a motion at a future meeting.

“We need to exercise our right to be a squeaky wheel,” she said.

During the meeting of the board last week, trustees were presented with an updated list of capital needs based on the current state of schools and population growth needs across Simcoe County.

At the elementary level, alphabetically, the schools identified as being of the highest need are:

  • an Ardagh Bluffs Public School addition,
  • Baxter Central Public School addition,
  • Coldwater Public School addition,
  • Emma King Elementary School addition,
  • Huronia Centennial Elementary School addition,
  • new Alcona elementary school with child care,
  • new Alliston elementary school,
  • new Angus elementary school,
  • two new south-east Barrie elementary schools,
  • two new south-west Barrie elementary schools,
  • new Midhurst west elementary school,
  • Nottawa Elementary School addition,
  • and a Warnica Public School replacement.

At the secondary level, alphabetically, the schools are: Collingwood Collegiate Institute replacement, Nantyr Shores Secondary School addition, new Bradford secondary school and a Wasaga Beach secondary school.

Typically, once the Ministry of Education puts out a call for capital priorities, the board will then work with their alphabetical list to rank the priorities according to need and submit a business case to the ministry for that cycle. The Ministry of Education will then decide which schools province-wide will get funding.

The last time the SCDSB was approved for new capital priority funding through the province was in late 2021 and Jan. 2022, when the ministry granted funding approval for a Banting Memorial High School replacement, Killarney Beach Public School addition and a new Orillia elementary school. The ministry also announced funding approval for a child-care renovation at Tecumseth Beeton Elementary School at that time.

In total, those projects amounted to approximately $58.8 million in funding for that cycle.

For the 2022/23 cycle, the SCDSB sent business cases to the ministry for the following priorities in Feb. 2022:

  1. New Angus elementary school
  2. New Alliston elementary school
  3. New Bradford secondary school
  4. Nantyr Shores Secondary School addition
  5. Ardagh Bluffs Public School addition

In May 2022, the board was informed they had been denied funding by the ministry for any capital projects in the 2022/23 cycle.

There has not yet been another call for capital priorities by the Ministry of Education since that time.

During his presentation on current board capital needs last week, Superintendent of Business and Facility Services Corry Van Nispen said the board has about 6,000 more students than its existing schools can accommodate.

“This is the major driver behind some of the board’s more pressing needs,” he said.

Orillia/Severn/Ramara trustee Jodi Lloyd said that after reading the report, she had concerns the board would have difficulty getting out of the backlog of needed improvements, repairs and new school approvals. She noted that in her own conversations with the Ministry of Education, there likely aren’t plans to put out another call for capital priorities until at least the end of 2023.

“Are ministry staff aware of the dire situation we're in?” asked Lloyd.

Van Nispin said board staff had made the situation clear to the ministry during internal conversations back in December.

“That was a point that was very clearly made that when (the ministry)...puts up the map of Ontario up, there's a great big flaming red hot spot where Simcoe County resides,” said Van Nispin.

Van Nispin noted that one of the challenges of capital priorities currently being worked through at the ministry is previously-approved projects are now coming in with costs up to 45 per cent higher than originally anticipated due to increased construction costs, with boards approaching the province to cover the difference.

For example, a new Wasaga Beach public school in the Sunnidale Trails subdivision was approved by the province at the school board's request in 2018 at $10.8 million estimated construction value. Simcoe-Grey MPP Brian Saunderson announced the province released the funding, now at $14.9 million, and approval to go out to tender on Feb. 6, 2023. 

“When you extrapolate that across the whole province there's a crunch on capital dollars that the ministry is faced with at this point in time,” he said.

Lloyd said the problem still lies at the feet of the current government, as they did not put out any calls for capital priorities for schools for nearly three years at the beginning of their first term.

“They have dug all boards into the hole that we're currently in,” said Lloyd.

Chair and Innisfil trustee Donna Armstrong expressed frustration that the choices the ministry has made in regards to which schools receives funding are not based on the business cases put forward by the school board.

“Unfortunately there is a sandbox called the political side and I think trustees should understand this,” she said. “This was quite evident in the last election that...where schools were announced that were not needs-based and were not merit-based. They were politically based on seats that maybe needed help. Unfortunately, in Simcoe County, obviously, there were no seats that needed help.”

Armstrong referenced the controversy regarding the approval of a new Shanty Bay elementary school in July 2020, where Education Minister Stephen Lecce admitted the decision to fund that project was based on advocacy by Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey.

“We need to get to the ear of our MPPs and possibly have school councils (go) as a big group to their offices,” said Armstrong.

Adjala-Tosorontio/Clearview/CFB Borden/Essa trustee Brandy Rafeek called the situation “ridiculous.”

As part of Rafeek’s purview, the Angus area was ranked highest on the last capital priority submission list by the board as two of its elementary schools located a kilometre apart are at 165 and 175 per cent capacity.

“(The ministry) being aware doesn’t really change anything, and this is becoming a dire situation for our families,” said Rafeek. “We need to say over and over as loud as we can that this is unacceptable for our families and our students and for our communities.”

Foley agreed.

“All of our students from Wasaga Beach being scattered to the four corners of the board...that's something that just can't be accepted anymore by people in Wasaga and by myself for that matter,” said Foley. “I want to make sure that we keep the ministry's feet to the fire.”

Foley was the first trustee to suggest the board send a letter to the ministry last week, reminding them of “the dire consequences of inaction.”

“Our students are being bused everywhere and it’s just unacceptable,” he said.

As of the 2022/23 academic year, the Simcoe County District School Board includes 87 elementary schools, 15 secondary schools and more than 56,500 students.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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