Three hours into the first public meeting called to discuss the recommended closure of Sarnia Collegiate, Gavin Hall couldn’t take it anymore.
“Let’s hear from the crowd,” he demanded, jumping to his feet. “This is all window dressing.”
Hall, who graduated from Sarnia Collegiate and taught there for 29 years, had sat patiently with about 150 other parents, students and teachers waiting to speak.
But administrators with the Lambton Kent District School Board spent the bulk of the long meeting repeating their financial case for closing SCITS (Sarnia Collegiate) and moving its students to St. Clair Secondary School.
“You’ve made your decision already,” Hall charged, standing in front of board staff and members of the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC).
“You don’t talk about what’s good about SCITS … and you say you’re going to build a theatre at St. Clair if you get approval for $14 million.
“That’s pie in the sky,” said a frustrated Hall.
When the meeting in St. Clair’s gym was finally turned over to the public, about a dozen people spoke, all pleading to maintain SCITS. Several suggested both schools could remain open if the board shifted Grades 7 & 8 to the high schools.
“Why rush a closure?” asked parent Jennifer George, whose daughter Mackenzie started a SAVE SCITS Facebook page with nearly 2,400 supporters.
“We’ll lose our superior machine shop, our auditorium and stage, as well as the pool.”
Business superintendent Brian McKay said the board intends to apply to the Ministry of Education for $14 million to upgrade St. Clair and add amenities now offered at SCITS.
But approval won’t arrive for that funding until this fall at the earliest. If trustees decide to close SCITS when they vote on April 26, they must make that decision before knowing if funds are available for capital upgrades to St. Clair. And St. Clair students will have already transferred to SCITS in September to make way for year-long renovations at St. Clair.
“So that provincial funding is a big ‘if’,” said George.
McKay said some limited renovations can go ahead with money the board has set aside.
“Why don’t you just delay this accommodation review until funding guarantees are made?” George asked. Her comments were met with applause from the audience.
“Not one of you has mentioned the historical significance of SCITS. Why not?” parent Rebecca Horner asked.
The board believes $1.1 million can be saved annually by closing SCITS, but Horner asked if officials have factored in the cost of maintaining a vacant building.
“No,” admitted McKay.
“Finally, we get an answer,” Horner shot back.
SCITS student Reena Herbstreit, 16, stood before the microphone to ask if the administration, which is recommending the consolidation, has considered its impact on Mitton Village and downtown businesses.
“How can you justify moving our school from downtown when we’re trying to bring new life to that part of the city?” asked Herbstreit.
“There’s no question the health of the downtown is a concern for all of Sarnia,” answered Gary Girardi, superintendent of education in charge of capital planning.
“…But I don’t think that coincides with our objectives.”
Later, Herbstreit said she is afraid the decision to close SCITS was made before the ARC launched its two public meetings. The ARC cannot make recommendations but can suggest other options before the April 26 vote.
“We won’t go down without a fight,” Herbstreit said.
SCITS students and parents sitting on ARC questioned why the board hasn’t spent more to maintain SCITS in recent years.
“Have you purposely neglected SCITS?” asked parent Mary Ethier. “I can’t imagine the province would be in favour of abandoning a building (like SCITS).”
Sarnia Collegiate is the city’s oldest high school. It was built 94 years ago for 1,050 students. Enrolment is currently 564 and is expected to continue declining.
St. Clair is three kilometres away and was built in 1961. It can accommodate 1,197 and has enrolment of 567 students. St. Clair also faces shrinking numbers if nothing changes.
The principals from both schools pointed to the difference in utility costs, which amount to $324,000 a year at SCITS and $184,000 at St. Clair.
Busing changes after consolidation will bring “minor cost increases” if SCITS closes and boundaries switch, the crowd was told.
A new boundary line at Highway 402 will mean Point Edward students will attend Northern.
“I want to hear your rationale for playing into this north/south divide,” said Ethier who represents SCITS on the ARC. “You know what I’m talking about.”
She later suggested closing SCITS could create a slum area.
“The 402 is a natural divide,” said Girardi. “The map reflects where parents are already moving their children.”
After the meeting, George said it may feel like the board decision is all but made, however, she is going to rally more support for the next and final public meeting on March 8 at SCITS.
“The only way to change their minds is with a new, concrete option like bringing Grades 7 and 8 to the high schools,” she said. “It might save both schools.”
Meanwhile, the public can make inquiries or comment online at [email protected].