Persistent rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of about 50 blue and yellow-clad children, parents and grandparents on Wednesday, May 8, as they jammed beneath the sheltered entranceway of West Nissouri Public School in Thorndale and used chants, cheers, and home-made placards to greet attendees of a Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB)-mandated meeting.
The meeting, involving members of the board’s North West Oxford Accommodation Review Committee (ARC), marked the official beginning of a process which could ultimately see the closure of A.J. Baker Public School in Kintore. Blue and yellow are the school’s colours, and the umbrella and sign-waving people were a collection of its students, parents and other supporters.
“I never would have thought, several months ago, that we would have this many people, standing in the pouring rain, fighting to save their school,” shouted Save A.J. Baker committee chair Marcus Ryan, as the last of the ARC meeting attendees slipped through the doors into the Thorndale school.
Other affected schools in the North West Oxford ARC (besides West Nissouri and A.J. Baker) are located in Thamesford and Embro, but a 2012 TVDSB staff report calling for the formation of the ARC recommended only A.J. Baker for closure. Each of the four schools are represented by two full-voting ARC members, while each school principal sits in as a resource person. One municipal politician each from Zorra and Thames Centre are also voting ARC members.
Graham Hart, one of Oxford County’s two TVDSB trustees, acts as non-voting chair.
“Superintendent Barb Sonier has the responsibility for the Ingersoll zone, which includes three of the four affected schools,” Hart explained in an interview with the Journal Argus. “She’s the person I work with in terms of organizing meetings” and coordinating the content of the reports that are delivered to the ARC members.
According to Hart, last week’s West Nissouri gathering was the first of four planned tours of the affected facilities. The meeting portion of the evening, however, was “totally organizational” in nature, with ARC members advised about the mandate of the committee and the legislatively-controlled process and rules it must follow.
One ARC member was absent: the municipal government representative from Thames Centre. All others were present.
Education Ministry legislation dictates that four ARC meetings must be held, all in public. Only committee members can speak, except for a period of public delegations that will be made available if there are applications. Individuals will be allowed five minutes each; if you’re representing a recognized group, you will be allowed 10 minutes. Each individual is only allowed one public delegation during the regular ARC meeting cycle.
Hart says it’s likely the final regular ARC meeting will take place in January, 2014. At that meeting, it’s expected a final ARC report will be approved and officially submitted to trustees. It will be followed by a 30-day time period during which TVDSB staff will provide its comments and final recommendations.
Also during that 30-day period, it’s expected a special public meeting will be held, specifically for gathering public input into the ARC’s final report.
A final report by staff will then be submitted to trustees, taking into account the initial staff recommendation, the ARC findings, and additional public input. Hart expects that to come before trustees some time in March, 2014.
Any final trustee decision must not be taken until 60 days after the subsequent staff report. During that time, the public is again invited to make public delegations — in this case, to the board of trustees.
By that time, given the recent activities of the Save A.J. Baker committee, trustees will be very familiar with the faces — and the blue and yellow garb — of those fighting to keep the school open. Aside from the rally outside the May 8 meeting — which garnered the attention of CTV London — committee members have also been regulars in the public gallery at the board’s downtown London trustee boardroom.
“They’ve been coming to meetings for the last several months . . . by the carloads,” reported Hart. “They wear their yellow shirts. They’re definitely getting noticed.”
The yellow-and-blue brigade will, undoubtedly, be out in full force for the next scheduled meeting of the ARC, set to take place Thursday, Sept. 26 at A.J. Baker. In the interview, Hart welcomed their continued involvement.
“That’s what this is all about — hearing from as many people as possible about their ideas for how to deal with the decision,” the committee chair said.