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Sarnia jumps into school closure fray

George Mathewson The folks trying to save SCITS from closure and possible demolition have found an ally in the City of Sarnia.
Save SCITS signs have been popping up across the city. Here, SCITS students, from left, Emily Vandermeer, Nancy Vallinga and Megan Landry walk past a vacant retail store on Mitton Street. Glenn Ogilvie

George Mathewson

The folks trying to save SCITS from closure and possible demolition have found an ally in the City of Sarnia.

City hall staff was authorized last week to assess what impact closing a high school would have on south-end neighbours and businesses and report back by March 21.

In addition, the staff report will consider how SCITS might be saved from the wrecking ball through its designation as a heritage building.

Sarnia needed to step in because sitting on the sidelines sends the wrong message, said Coun. Anne Marie Gillis.

“The building itself does have a lot of historical significance. It’s a one-of-a-kind,” said Gillis, a former Catholic school trustee.

“Very rarely do (school boards) have cities come forward saying, ‘Wait a minute, this building, this institution, is vital to our community.’”

A committee appointed by the Lambton Kent District School Board is reviewing a recommendation to combine SCITS with St. Clair Secondary and close the 92-year-old building on Wellington Street by 2017.

The next public meeting is set for SCITS on March 8, at 6:30 p.m.

Built in 1922, Sarnia Collegiate Institute & Technical School includes an indoor swimming pool and theatre auditorium that are valuable community assets, said Mayor Mike Bradley, who requested the staff report.

“The closure could have a significant impact on two commercial areas and a residential area of the city,” he said. “I think that’s an official plan issue.”

If the closure is approved, the students from St. Clair would shift to SCITS for the 2016-17 school year while St. Clair is upgraded. Then, the following September, the combined student body would make one final move back to St. Clair.

The school board says SCITS, which is currently half empty, needs $17.7 million in upgrades over the next decade and closing it would save taxpayers $1.1 million a year.

A Save Scits citizen groups is skeptical of the numbers and says the board isn’t considering alternatives, including reconfiguring area schools to accommodate Grades 7-12 at the high school.

“The city's support is very welcome,” said group member Susan MacKenzie, who added the report could help trustees when they vote.

“The supportive comments Mayor Bradley and Councillor Gillis made were crucial to the community, and the entire city.

“They believe what we believe. There is still a meaningful, historic place for SCITS in our city.”

Coun. Matt Mitro said he didn’t support wasting valuable staff time on a decision beyond the city’s control.

“We know the school board is struggling with not enough students and not enough money … and we don’t have any ability to help them,” he said.

“We’re not going to give them any money.”

Sarnia might, however, have the authority to spare SCITS from ultimate demolition by designating it under the Ontario Heritage Act.

“The Heritage Committee would still have the option to approach council to have it designated and we’d have up to 90 days to do so,” said Alan Shaw, Sarnia’s acting planning director.

Gillis said she’s pleased council is getting involved.

“This particular school has been here for almost 100 years. It has a long history, and those assets are vital to our community plan,” she said.

The SAVE SCITS website is

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