St. Marys Journal Argus
“I believe we’ve changed the way the board makes decisions about school accommodations, from this day forward.”
Those were the words of A.J. Baker Public School community member Daniel West on Tuesday, Oct. 14, after trustees of the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) handed down a resounding, unanimous defeat of a recommendation from administrative staff to close the Kintore elementary school. West, along with dozens of other parents, grandparents, students, former parents, former students and other community members saw their months of work pay off in the form of a lengthy standing ovation from close to 150 supporters — many of whom were already standing due to lack of available seating — in response to Tuesday’s vote.
Long-serving Londoner Joyce Bennett, joining a series of trustees speaking against the closure prior to the Oct. 14 vote, gave credit to the Save A.J. committee for what has been described as an extremely well-coordinated, well-researched fight against administration’s recommendation. That fight culminated in presentations by over 35 members of the community at the TVDSB board offices on Sept. 23, for a meeting held solely to allow for public input into the proposed closure.
“We have closed small schools. We have closed large schools. And we’ve done that for a variety of reasons,” said Bennett, a former TVDSB chair who was first elected to the former London board in 1988.
Arguments have come before the board on repeated occasions, she explained, that a school “is the heart of the community,” or that students will be adversely affected by being asked to relocate. Yet closures — dozens of them — still were approved. But what was presented to the TVDSB by the Kintore community was entirely unique, Bennett said.
“To that young man who made the presentation (on Sept. 23) with the maps — the one where we had the geography lesson and they showed on the screen the relationship between the A.J. Baker attendance area and the City of London — that was impressive. That was an education.”
Other trustees shared Bennett’s enthusiasm for the Save A.J. campaign. Bill McKinnon, one of Oxford County’s two representatives on the board, was first off the mark, making sure to remind his TVDSB counterparts that councillors of the Township of Zorra had cancelled their scheduled Oct. 14 meeting so they could attend the school board meeting in support of the school.
“And our MPP, Ernie Hardeman, for the first time in his career, took time out of his schedule to speak in person to the Accommodation Review Committee against the closure . . . That’s how important this school is to the community.”
Middlesex County representative Jennifer Coghlin, a Dorchester-area mom, admitted that, when the closure recommendation first came before the board of trustees, she fully expected to support it. But by this week’s vote, “I was so compelled by all of the information brought to us by the A.J. Baker community; I was educated.”
Elgin County trustee James Todd went so far as to personally thank the A.J. Baker community members for what he described as an “articulate, thoughtful, organized, respectful and thorough” campaign. Looking to the packed lower and balcony levels of the boardroom’s public gallery, he said, “their sense of community is what we experience now, every time we have a meeting.”
Main components of the Save A.J. fight included an argument that administration had deliberately withheld Education Ministry funding destined for “school renewal” from A.J. Baker over more than a decade, instead maintaining a so-called “porta-pack” of portable classrooms joined directly to the original building. Portables are supposed to serve only as temporary accommodations until long-term solutions can be found.
Provincial funding for the implementation of Full-Day Kindergaren was also a factor, with Save A.J. committee members arguing that administration aimed to use the money earmarked for the Kintore school in other locations.
Other reasons for opposition included lengthy proposed bus rides to Zorra Highland Public School for displaced students, and the possibility of dozens of students in the north end of the A.J. Baker catchment area switching out of the TVDSB permanently in favour of schooling in the St. Marys area.
Early in the evening’s discussion, it seemed to the uninitiated that Executive Officer Kevin Bushell — the board’s school accommodation specialist, who directed the North West Oxford Accommodation Review process from administration’s side — had been able to rationalize some of these factors. Responding to trustee questions, he explained that recent enrolment projections indicate there won’t be any further renovations necessary at A.J. Baker to accommodate Full-Day Kindergarten. And he noted that, even if a decision is made to direct “school renewal” funds to the Kintore school, it will have to be placed in a “queue” of Ministry-identified needs within the board that’s over $4 million in magnitude, and won’t necessarily be tackled immediately.
Speaking after the meeting, however, Save A.J. ringleader Marcus Ryan surmised that some trustees may have decided to “throw a bone” to administration in the form of certain lines of questioning, in order to allow them to “save face” despite seeing their closure recommendation so soundly defeated. He noted that administrators were, after all, only doing their job by interpreting the available provincial funding model as it related to existing conditions in northwest Oxford County.
Still, having developed close relationships with trustees over months of lobbying, Ryan said the Save A.J. campaign’s leadership had a high level of confidence going into the Oct. 14 meeting that the vote would ultimately go their way.
Veteran London trustee Peter Jaffe, meanwhile, shared Ryan’s perspective that administration had done a good job, before he too eventually got around to speaking in favour of keeping A.J. Baker open.
Citing the executive officer’s long service directing the board’s facilities decision-making, Jaffe referred to Bushell as “the Wayne Gretzky of school planning.” He added that “this vote, for trustees, is not a vote for or against administration, but rather a sober second thought about closing A.J. Baker.”
Jaffe cautioned that trustees “have to be thoughtful” about how other threatened school communities might react to the board’s decision to reject the closure recommendation. But he observed that the Kintore community had given trustees “a very creditable case for keeping the school open,” and this will make the decision much easier to defend.
Trustee counterpart James Todd also considered the decision’s influence on other possibly-threatened Thames Valley schools. He expressed “concern” for others that may have equally compelling reasons to stay open but do not possess the same sense of togetherness, nor are home to people with such skills as researchers and public presenters, as the A.J. Baker community.
“I think we’ve taken a risk here and allowed A.J. Baker to flourish, to tell their story. And I want to thank them for doing that.”
Outside the meeting room, following the vote and the noisy public response, participants in the A.J. Baker fight paused from their celebration long enough to be interviewed by the media, and reflect on what had transpired.
“I truly believe the trustees around that table are thankful for what we did,” offered octogenarian George Quinn, a Kintore-area grandparent who was among those presenting during the Sept. 23 public input session. “They know that the way the (Ministry of Education) rules are written doesn’t give them a lot of options, and they were glad that we were able to provide them with reasons why they should go against that trend this time.”
Joining dozens of other at a Thamesford restaurant for a post-meeting celebration, West said he believes the A.J. Baker experience may have emboldened TVDSB trustees to take a broader look at school accommodation challenges in general. He suggested that was the meaning behind a motion, introduced immediately after the A.J. Baker vote by Elgin County trustee Tracy Grant, to begin lobbying the provincial government for changes in the formula for deciding on what scale of facilities are necessary for top-level education in rural areas and in community-based schools.
That motion, too, received unanimous trustee support.