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Five schools just fine: committee

Morgan Ian Adams

STAYNER - The committee deliberating on the future of high schools in north Simcoe will be putting forward a recommendation that favours five schools - but not one in Wasaga Beach.

At least, not now.

The 26-member Accommodation Review Committee for Area B - an area encompassing Collingwood, Clearview, Wasaga Beach, Springwater, and the Midland and Penetanguishene area - deliberated for about 40 minutes on Monday in the library of Stayner Collegiate following the final public meeting on the direction its recommendations should take.

In spite of a presentation by Wasaga Beach Mayor Cal Patterson highlighting the findings of a report commissioned by his municipality that supported the construction of a high school in the Beach - the town even has a 15-acre site picked out - the committee reached the decision that it couldn't support an option that could potentially draw students away from other schools, and put the future of those schools in jeopardy.

Several of the committee members made reference to what appears to be Ministry of Education policy to build high schools with a capacity of 900 students; Wasaga Beach, at the moment, can only fill a school with about 500 students.

"I think if we had an unlimited pot of money and not outside constraints, we would go with six schools," said one of the ARC's Clearview representatives, Councillor Shawn Davidson. "There would be much greater vision to allow each community to have their own school.

"We need, as communities, as ratepayers, to tell the ministry what we want them to fund, not the other way around," he said. "I'm fairly certain that Wasaga Beach will get a school, and it will be within the next 10 years."

For now, however, the option of having six high schools instead of five will be a secondary recommendation to maintaining the status quo, while putting money into the Elmvale and Stayner high schools for renovations and taking away some of the excess capacity at Midland Secondary School, either through leasing space or demolition.

A third option was to go to a four-school model for the region, with high schools in Collingwood, Elmvale, Midland/Penetanguishene, and either Stayner or Wasaga Beach. However, that option - while still in the report that will eventually go to the Simcoe County District School Board in April - did not have a lot of traction among committee members.

"In order to build a school at Wasaga Beach, other communities would be put at a disadvantage," said ARC member David Knox of Elmvale during the working group meeting. "We have five schools for now, and with further growth, that sixth school will come in without affecting the others."

During the two-hour public meeting, delegations from Wasaga Beach and Clearview made impassioned pleas for their high schools; in Wasaga's case, to get one built, and in Clearview's, not to lose Stayner Collegiate.

"Stayner has consistently had the highest graduation rate and the lowest attrition rate (of Simcoe County schools)," Davidson told the audience of about 150 during a presentation that was punctuated several times by applause from the hometown crowd. "Kids do not fall through the cracks in this school.

"Any decision to take this school out of this community. is not responsible," he said. "We need to be more innovative in our decision-making, that we're not simply taking a problem and moving it somewhere else."

The Clearview contingent backed up their emotion call with solid numbers that showed the township poised for significant growth - especially in the Stayner area - that would translate into nearly 1,400 students at the elementary and secondary school levels.

Patterson said his town hired a consultant to break down the numbers and "take the emotion out of the debate."

Noting Wasaga Beach growth projections of 125 per cent over the next 10 years, and that the Elmvale and Stayner schools were nearing their 'prohibitive-to-repair' dates, "a new, larger school of 1,000 students, offering a full range of programming" would be needed in a central location.

"The board needs to take action on two aging schools, and it would be fiscally responsible to construct a new school central to Wasaga Beach, Springwater, and Clearview," he said.

Members of the public who approached the mic appeared to favour a school from Wasaga Beach - as long as it didn't result in the closure of the Stayner and Elmvale high schools.

"The focus seems to be what we're taking away, not what we're adding," one man told the committee. "We should do the right thing, by retaining what we have and adding a new school (in Wasaga Beach)."

Several students and teachers at both Elmvale and Stayner made the case for keeping those schools in their respective communities.

"Being small is exception," said one SCI student. "Do not lose sight of. community. character and heart."

One SCI teacher noted she graduated from the high school, "and to be able to come back and teach here is an honour.

"Where I would want my kids to go to school, I would prefer they go to a school where the teachers know their name, where they won't fall through the cracks," she said. "You can't put into words the value of a small school."

The school board will hold a special public meeting on the ARC's recommendations on May 14, followed by what should be a final decision at its June 17 meeting.

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