By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
As winter fades to spring, and students start to smell the air of freedom outside the school walls, filling them with the exciting promise of a summer away from books and blackboards, the students of Oshawa Central may be feeling something else.
At a special meeting of the Durham District School Board (DDSB) on Feb. 1, elected trustees voted 9-2 in favour of a staff recommendation to close the doors of Central for good.
“Closing a school is not an easy decision to be able to make within the board,” said Michael Barrett, the board’s chair and one of Oshawa’s trustees. Barrett, along with his Oshawa counterparts Linda Stone and Larry Jacula, voted in favour of the school’s closure.
“Although it was a very, very difficult decision to be able to make, the trustees were heartfelt in being able to come forward with a decision tonight,” he said.
The final word was met with angry shouts and exclamations from Oshawa Central supporters in the gallery, some of whom were vocal all night. Jacula cut his own remarks short when speaking about the school’s closure after being repeatedly interrupted by shouts from the gallery.
“I can well appreciate the passion that they had for their school,” Barrett said following the meeting. “I know its pretty raw tonight, I know it’s pretty rough…but the decision made tonight by the trustees and by the board will give them greater choice on a go-forward basis.”
Grade 12 student Emma McCartan, while disappointed with the decision, said that many students knew it was inevitable.
“It’s sort of the opinion of the school that we don’t want it to close, but this is something that we’ve seen coming,” she said.
The recommendation from school board staff came with several recommendations. Along with closing the school, DDSB will be funding buses to help get students to and from their new schools, which will be either Eastdale CVI or RS McLaughlin.
However, this factor, which could see some students living in the Gibb Street area bussing across town to attend school, has Councillor John Aker worried that dropout rates will soon spike.
“We have a large area that really is going to be an educational wasteland,” Aker said following the decision.
Aker, along with the rest of Oshawa city council, has been a vocal proponent of keeping Central open, and was in attendance for the meeting with fellow councillor Amy McQuaid-England.
“I’m very disappointed. My colleagues on council will be disappointed,” he said.
The school board quoted a steep decline in student enrolments in recent years as one of the reasons for initiating the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process in January 2015 – a process that involved four public meetings and several board meetings prior to Monday’s decision.
However, Aker says the fact that Central only had two feeder schools was one of the main reasons for enrolment decline.
“If you only have two feeder schools, you can not survive,” he said.
RS McLaughlin has five feeder schools while Eastdale CVI currently has eight.
According to numbers from DDSB, student enrolments at Central have dropped from 944 in 2003 to 371 in 2013. Most recent student numbers put the population of Central at fewer than 300 students.
Barrett says that creating programming for such a small population of students is difficult, and the end result is that many students end up transferring to other schools in order to get the classes they need to move on to postsecondary educations.
McQuaid-England said she was disappointed the trustees didn’t listen to the clear voice from the community to keep the school open.
“They are not appointed lackeys to the board, they are there to represent the students the people of our community and only two trustees stood up for those people, and those two trustees were not from Oshawa,” she said following the meeting.
The regional councillor also tweeted during the meeting that she would be “taking names of trustees who vote to close Central. I will make it my mission in 2018 to remove you from office.”
Following the meeting, McQuaid-England reiterated her message from social media.
“I think that’s part of my mission in 2018 and I might be considering myself dropping down and running for the school board because I see how inept they are at actually representing the people they are supposed to represent,” she said.
The debate on Oshawa Central had far reaching political impacts over the last year.
While all of Oshawa city council came out against the closure, MPP Jennifer French also penned a letter detailing her support for the school. However, Barrett says trustees have different priorities than other politicians.
“Whereas the city councillors, and I’m not knocking them, have a perspective on looking at the governance model of a city, we’re looking at the governance model for the wellbeing of our children,” he said. “I really don’t have the same concern on whether or not it’s good for real estate values because I really have to be focused on our kids. The price of a house does nothing to ensure our students have an equitable opportunity for educational opportunities.”
Oshawa Central will close it’s doors for good at the end of this school year.