“It is more than a building. It is the heart of this entire community,” Brook Freer-Wiles, south-end resident fighting to keep SCITS open.
Emotions are riding high as the deadline nears for elected school trustees to vote on closing one of Sarnia’s high schools.
A public meeting at SCITS last week drew about 450 people, many dressed in blue and white and waving “Save SCITS” flyers. They urged an Accommodation Review Committee and school board administrators to recommend St. Clair Secondary, not SCITS, be shut down.
Administrators have recommended SCITS be closed and its students merged with St. Clair students in 2017. The vote is expected on April 26.
“I’m really mad that you guys can’t see what we have here,” said SCITS parent Chris Burley, standing at a podium in the school’s 850-seat auditorium.
“St. Clair has fantastic students but this is the better school,” he said. “So let’s get behind it.”
Burley said he chose to send his children to SCITS, despite being Catholic, because he believes its arts, music, theatre and tech programs are superior.
“This is a special school,” he said. “We’re (comparing) a Chevy to a Mercedes and you guys can’t see it.”
Dozens of others spoke as passionately, at times angrily or tearfully, making their case to keep 93-year-old SCITS open and close 54-year-old St. Clair.
Committee members listened for the most part without interruption. And there were signs that SCITS isn’t dead just yet.
Administrators have agreed to put an idea back on the table to locate elementary schools at St. Clair at a March 21 working meeting. They also said they would compile an “apples to apples” comparison of the two school.
Residents and students said they fear closing SCITS will result in an abandoned building, the loss of nearby businesses and a south-end migration.
“But this issue is so much more than just a debate about creeping urban blight,” said Keith Wyville who lives in the neighbourhood.
Having toured both schools, he said: “My inescapable conclusion is that SCITS is by far the better building, and will continue to be for the next 15 to 20 years.”
He cited larger music rooms, more shops, the auditorium, pool, gyms and wrestling room at Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Technical School.
Susan MacKenzie, a member of the Save SCITS lobby group, took business superintendent Brian McKay to task over figures that support the consolidation of the two schools at St. Clair.
MacKenzie agreed consolidation is necessary given declining enrolment and shrinking provincial dollars. But she said the Ministry of Education provided her with different figures that support closing St. Clair instead.
She asked whether administrators have misled the public to satisfy their own mandate to close SCITS, a move the boards says will save $1.1 million a year.
McKay defended his numbers, but MacKenzie accused him of using too many hypotheticals.
Director of Education Jim Costello insisted administrators are committed to doing what’s best for all 22,000 students of the Lambton Kent District School Board.
One larger school will provide better course selection, he said.
Superintendent Gary Girardi said board staff is preparing a new report that will compare the two schools “apples to apples.” It will reflect renovation costs for both, capital forecasts, accessibility issues and property assessment values, he said.
That report will be ready for the ARC’s next working meeting on March 21.
Numerous students and alumni pleaded to spare SCITS, saying their lives were changed by the quality of its drama program, supported by its stage and unique auditorium.
“We all live here. We all love this school,” said 15-year-old Jessica Munday. “What will you do when businesses around here start shutting down because you shut down this beautiful building?”
Little attention was paid to St. Clair’s attributes, although a few parents and students spoke.
When a teacher who is also a parent urged administrators to ensure the transition is smooth, regardless of which school closes, many in the crowd were upset because teachers had been asked by the board not to participate in the public debate.
The public has two more opportunities to speak out about consolidation at the board’s April 12 and April 26 meetings in Sarnia. However, they must first make a formal request at the board office. Otherwise, the public is allowed to observe but not speak at a working meeting for the ARC on March 21, starting at 6 p.m. at the Sarnia Education Centre.
* The public can still weigh in by emailing [email protected].
* Questions can be asked online at www.lkdsb.net.
* Anyone wishing to speak at an upcoming board meeting must contact Trish Johnson at 519-336-1500 ahead of time;
* Superintendent Girardi says all meeting dates are subject to change;
* The ARC and administrators are making recommendations only. The final decision rests with elected trustees.