BLAKETOWN — Trustees and senior staff with the Eastern School District listened for more than three hours on the evening of Oct. 30 as speaker after speaker repeatedly called upon board officials to reconsider a proposal to close schools in Whitbourne and Heart’s Delight-Islington.
Some 150 parents, students, teachers, business and community leaders assembled at Crescent Collegiate for a public consultation hosted by the district.
In all, just under two dozen people stepped forward, with a vast majority arguing against a proposal to close Whitbourne Elementary and Epiphany Elementary in Heart’s Delight-Islington at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Both are kindergarten to Grade 6 schools, and are among five rural schools slated to be closed as part of the board’s proposed multi-year plan (2011-2014),
Polite and professional
Without exception, the speakers were polite and professional, but also passionate and forceful in their belief that closing the schools will do more harm than good.
Supporters for both schools presented similar arguments, stressing that the schools provide a positive learning experience for children, are located in growing, healthy communities, and are structurally sound, sufficiently staffed and supported by the residents.
They also predicted that closing the schools would force many children to endure unnecessarily long daily commutes on busses, have a negative impact on extra-curricular activities, increase the likelihood of bullying, take students further away from vital emergency and other services, and stunt the economic growth that has been occurring in the Whitbourne and Heart’s Delight areas in recent years.
Board trustees and senior staff listened intently as speakers listed off the services and amenities in their respective communities, and boasted about the deep connection they have with their schools.
“They are so happy at (Epiphany),” said Colleen Murphy, a member of the school council. “My eight-year-old even said he would be quitting if his school closes.”
Several speakers urged board members to put the safety, education and happiness of children ahead of any need to “balance the books.”
Several parents said the presence of a school was a determining factor in their decisions to move to the area.
“It had everything we needed. It’s a self-contained community,” said Anthony Young of Whitbourne, who moved with his family to the town in 2010
He said Whitbourne is strategically located on the Trans-Canada Highway between St. John’s and Whitbourne, and is a short distance from major projects such as the nickel processing plant at Long Harbour, the oil refinery in Come by Chance, and the offshore fabrication facility in Bull Arm.
Young said the rationale for closing the Whitbourne school was not “rationale or clear.”
“It’s not a struggling town. It’s growing,” said Young.
Developer Hubert Hussey said closing the school would create a “significant obstacle” to his vision for growth in Whitbourne, which includes an RV park and dozens of new residential building lots.
Epiphany has an enrolment of 43 students, and serves a catchment area that includes the combined communities and Heart’s Delight-Islington, and Heart’s Desire.
Whitbourne Elementary has 78 students enrolled this year, and draws on students from Whitbourne and nearby Markland.
If the board endorses the proposal to close the two schools, students currently attending Epiphany will be transferred to Acreman Elementary in Green’s Harbour beginning in September 2013, a distance of 17 kilometres.
Students attending Whitbourne Elementary will go to Woodland Elementary in Dildo, a distance of 19 kilometres.
But several speakers pointed out that some students on the extreme boundaries of the catchment area will be riding the bus for long stretches.
Sherry Barrett, who chairs the local service district in Markland, said it would take up to 70 minutes to make the trip to Dildo each day.
She called this “unacceptable” and said it would cause unnecessary hardship on young students and their families.
More than a few speakers suggested that the board have a second look at the catchment area in order to make the two schools viable.
The school council at Epiphany took things one step further, and presented its own proposal to the school board, suggesting that Acreman Elementary be closed, and that three schools remain in the area.
This scenario would see Epiphany remain open, and accommodate students from Whiteway and Cavendish to Heart’s Desire, while Woodland would accommodate students from South Dildo to Green’s Harbour. As for Whitbourne Elementary, its catchment area would also expand to include students from Markland to Blaketown and Old Shop.
“This is what we feel should happen for the best of the students’ education, health and safety,” said Epiphany school council member Chris Snelgrove.
Meanwhile, representatives of Acreman and Woodland offered assurances that they would make the transition as smooth as possible, and would welcome the new students “with open arms.”
The chairman of the school board, Milton Peach of Carbonear, praised the speakers for the “manner of their presentations,” and said they displayed a very strong passion and commitment to their communities and schools.
But he also called upon those in attendance to “appreciate the challenge” the board faces as it attempts to manage one of the largest school boards in Eastern Canada.
“It’s a massive challenge for us,” he stated.
Meanwhile, the board will table notices of motion for any potential school closures at a special public board meeting on Nov. 7 in Shoal Harbour. This will be followed by more public hearings.
Those notices of motion will be voted on during a public meeting in Spaniard’s Bay on Dec. 13.