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'We’re listening to rural Ontario,' education minister says during visit to Simcoe County

Lecce says several factors are weighed for school funding aside from board priorities, including population growth and requests from community members

Education Minister Stephen Lecce visited Shanty Bay on Tuesday afternoon, a little over a week after the province announced capital funding for building projects in the area, including a new school in the Oro-Medonte village.

The minister was on hand along with Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey, Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes and representatives from the Simcoe County District School Board to visit Shanty Bay Public School.

A new school on the site is planned to be built with $5.9 million in funding from the provincial government by 2023.

“There had been no formal announcement like this and we wanted to create public awareness and accountability. And I think it was important to bring together some of the community stakeholders,” said Lecce. “Today, we’re really celebrating the achievement of this community in advocating for a new school. By being here physically, we’re communicating that we’re standing strong behind rural schools in this province.

“Being here is not just about bringing a cheque,” Lecce added with a laugh. “It’s about signalling that we’re here for rural and suburban communities in this province.”

The province’s choice to fund the Shanty Bay school project is controversial, as it was ranked No. 10 out of 10 capital priorities submitted by the board to the province in September 2019.

Here’s the list, in priority order, trustees approved:

  1. New Bradford South elementary school
  2. Banting Memorial High School replacement school
  3. Lake Simcoe Public School addition
  4. Killarney Beach Public School addition
  5. New Angus elementary school
  6. New Alliston elementary school
  7. New Orillia elementary school
  8. New Barrie #1 Southeast elementary school
  9. New Barrie #1 Southwest elementary school
  10. Shanty Bay Public School Replacement School

When asked by BarrieToday last week why the Shanty Bay school moved so far up the list, both Downey and Lecce revealed that Downey’s advocacy for the project played a large role in it receiving the funding, a message that was repeated at Tuesday’s announcement.

When asked today why school boards are mandated to submit capital priorities when governments can then bypass them, Lecce said more is taken into account after the board’s list hits the provincial desk.

“The boards will present their priorities and then the ministry will use their own metrics to understand population growth, and also to consider other aspects, like requests from the mayor and members of the community,” said Lecce. “We’re listening to rural Ontario.”

At the end of July, the Ministry of Education announced $500 million in funding to build 30 new schools in Ontario and upgrade 15 others, as well as creating nearly 900 new licensed child-care spaces.

Locally, the government announced $13.5 million for a new 593-pupil elementary school in southern Bradford West Gwillimbury, which was No. 1 on the public board’s list of priorities. The province also gave the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board approval to proceed with the tender for a new elementary school in Innisfil, which will include child-care rooms.

Overall, Lecce said the government intends to continue with its $12-billion, 10-year plan to fund school capital projects with the intention of announcing new projects annually. And if schools on the board’s list were missed this time around, they could receive funding in next year’s round.

“We intend to fund new schools on an annual basis at $500 million a year,” he said. “We’re going to continue to fund those projects. We’re going to continue to listen. We’re going to meet with them and understand their needs.

“No doubt, given the growth of this community, and I mean as a region as the County of Simcoe, there will be good news for the people here,” Lecce added.

Lecce was also asked questions about return-to-school protocols.

“We’re ensuring parents have a choice,” he said. “We’re codifying the right of parents to choose in-class instruction five days a week for elementary students or remote learning and we fundamentally believe parents need to make that choice based on their own comfort.

“We have put $309 million more in place... to keep these kids safe. If the risk continues to rise, we’ll continue to make those investments. We just will not compromise on the safety of children in this province,” Lecce added.

When asked why he opted to make the back-to-school plan announcement before the Aug. 4 deadline for boards to have their plans to the province, Lecce said the provincial government wanted to be able to provide additional guidance while boards were still tinkering with their plans.

“We wanted to provide additional funds and additional guidance in order to make those plans work. We’re working in tandem and we’re all working very hard to respond to the challenge,” he said.


Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings nine years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering county matters, court, Collingwood and Barrie matters
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