Province demands minister be invited to all school ribbon-cuttings

A London MPP is lashing out at a directive from the province that requires local school boards to invite the education minister to all new school openings.

The edict is part of a memo sent to school boards in July from Ontario’s Deputy Education Minister Joshua Paul. It outlines guidelines for local boards that are applying for capital money for new schools.

The memo’s overriding theme is controlling the cost of new capital projects, but it also puts a priority on making it clear where the money is coming from.

“The minister of education must be invited to all public events relating to ministry funded capital projects,” the memorandum says. “All public announcements regarding capital investments in the publicly funded education system are joint communication opportunities for the provincial government, the school board … and or/community partners.”

The memorandum says the province must be acknowledged in any reports, speeches, signage and announcements about new schools.

It also requires boards invite the minister to any ribbon-cutting ceremonies, with six weeks advance notice.

NDP MPP Terrance Kernaghan says the directive is part of what he calls an “obsession” the Doug Ford government has with public relations and message control.

“It shows their priorities are all wrong,” said Kernaghan, who represents London North Centre. “Some of the language in there is disturbing. They’re saying the ministry may issue its own news release and that they want ultimate control over this.”

Kernaghan said it makes him wonder whether Ontario News Now — an arm of the premier’s office that produces partisan TV news style videos — will start covering school openings.

However, ministry spokesperson Alexandra Adamo said it’s standard practice that the ministry is included as part of the communication plan at ceremonies that mark the start and completion of new schools.

Province wants ‘modular’ design for schools

The ministry directive also calls on school boards to “standardize the design” of new school construction, with boards being encouraged to move toward modular building designs as a way to keep costs down.

Kernaghan said this could lead to cookie cutter schools in a system that already has too many portables.

However, Adamo said modular building design is the standard in other building sectors and has been proven as an effective way to build cheaper and greener.

“We are taking decisive action to ensure students have safe and modern learning environments that enable their success in the classroom, in life, and in the labour market,” she said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

Adamo also said it doesn’t mean schools will be built without amenities like cafeterias or gymnasiums. Instead, she said “modular” means building designs that can be easily scaled up or down as enrolment changes. She also said it does not mean portables will be used as a substitute for permanent buildings.

A total of 20 portables were added to schools across TVDSB ahead of the start of the school year in September. That’s down from 28 new portables added ahead of the start of school last year.

Board wants Eagle Heights expanded

The province’s memorandum was included as part of the agenda package at the Thames Valley District School Board’s planning and priorities advisory committee meeting on Sept. 10.

The package outlines the board’s capital funding requests to the province.

They are:

  • Addition to Eagle Heights Public School. The school located across from Cherry Hill Mall on Oxford Street is operating at a utilization rate of 145 per cent. There were 15 portable classrooms in use at the school last year and that number was expected to jump to 17 for this school year.
  • Addition to Springbank Public School (Woodstock). The school is operating at a utilization rate of 145 per cent.
  • New school in north London. A number of schools in this fast-growing area are operating at utilization rates above 100 per cent including Masonville (165%). It was green-lighted for an expansion set to start this fall. Masonville currently has 14 portables on the property. Also, students who live in two “holding areas” in north London are currently being bused south to Ryerson Public School in Old North.
  • New school for southwest London. Growth in Byron and Lambeth has put pressure on a number of schools in this area, including Lambeth PS and Sir Issac Brock PS, which has a utilization rate of 145 per cent.
  • New elementary school (plus closures) in Belmont. The board submission to the province calls for a new school in Belmont with the planned closures of other schools in the area (South Dorchester PS, Springfield PS, Westminster Central PS and partial closure of New Sarum PS).
  • New southeast St. Thomas elementary school. This would consolidate student populations from portions of the attendance areas of Mitchell Hepburn PS and New Sarum PS.

The six submissions are to be sent to the province by the end of September.

Susan Mark, the TVDSB’s superintendent of facility services, said she’s hoping the board will hear back from the province before the end of the year.

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