St. Marys Journal Argus
THORNDALE — He wasn’t speaking directly to the elected trustees of the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) — instead, it was a group of community volunteers seeking input from the wider public — but Oxford County MPP Ernie Hardeman, nonetheless, made his message to the trustees clear: From one elected politician to a group of others, “the school board needs to listen to its constituents.”
At the request of the grassroots Save A.J. Baker committee, which is fighting to convince TVDSB trustees to reject an administrative staff recommendation to close the Kintore elementary school, the veteran MPP spoke as a public delegation on Thursday, Jan. 16 to the North West Oxford Accommodation Review Committee. The committee, mandated by the board to provide its own report about the proposed closure, includes members from the communities surrounding four elementary schools: A.J. Baker, Zorra Highland Park near Embro, and facilities in Thamesford and Thorndale.
Under the staff recommendation, A.J. Baker would close, with most students relocated to either Zorra Highland or Thamesford. West Nissouri Public School in Thorndale could potentially be affected by a boundary change or a very small influx of new students.
The ARC has been holding monthly meetings, moving from one of the four schools to the next. The Jan. 16 meeting was held in Thorndale.
As the second and final public delegation of the night (Hardeman began by joking that he had been set up for failure: His slot on the agenda came directly after a well-presented speech from A.J. Baker Grade 7 student Sean Slater), the Conservative MPP noted he has not spoken at an ARC in the past. Although the TVDSB has closed numerous Oxford County schools during his multi-term tenure at Queen’s Park through the ARC process, he has always felt the community-based meetings were a place for the community to have its say.
He was convinced to submit his name for the North West Oxford ARC, he explained, by the hard work and persistence of the Save A.J. committee.
“They have raised some serious questions about whether the recommendations of the TVDSB administration make sense,” Hardeman said.
A one-time Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs who still serves as Conservative Critic for that portfolio, Hardeman stressed he’s certainly familiar with TVDSB Accommodation Reviews, even though he has never spoken directly to one. In particular, he pointed to a five-year process through the mid-2000s that eventually led to the closure of Norwich High School and consolidation of elementary accommodations in the area.
Through community input, the ARC in that case submitted an alternative proposal for dealing with declining enrolment in the Norwich area. Trustees chose the original TVDSB staff recommendation.
“The community was never provided with the reasons why the proposal they put forward was not as good or better than the proposal that was originally recommended by TVDSB administration,” Hardeman said.
Citing the Education Ministry legislation governing accommodation reviews, he said the process doesn’t work “unless the school board listens. Not just takes note of what the community says and then moves on to the decision, but really listens and considers that input.”
He added: “Nothing is more disingenuous” that soliciting public input and then seemingly not taking any heed of it.
A gathering of about 30 A.J. Baker supporters in the public gallery erupted into applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion of the Oxford MPP’s speech.