Woodslee community association members Jennifer Levack and Paul Mullins stand with local chair of the Catholic School Council Melissa Tavolieri, Fr. Dave Boutette and principal of St. John the Evangelist Catholic School Pam Prsa (left to right) outside of the school they seek to save. Photo courtesy of Paul Mullins

Community rallies to save small-town school

By 
  • March 17, 2013

In the southwestern Ontario hamlet of Woodslee residents have rallied to save St. John the Evangelist Catholic Elementary School.

“We’re talking about the school board entering into a partnership with the community in order to be able to keep the school open,” said Paul Mullins, a life-long Woodslee resident and St. John the Evangelist alumni. “Any small community struggles to keep their significant institutions in the town. There is such a strong push to consolidate things in larger centres.”

According to both Mullins and the school board, the closure of St. John the Evangelist will be deferred until June 2019.

Following an accommodation review last year the school, which had been operating at 67-per-cent capacity with 148 students in the 2011-2012 school year, had been slotted for closure in September 2013. Declining enrolment had the school failing to meet the province’s 85-per-cent capacity full-funding quota since the 2008-2009 school year, which added a greater burden on the board’s general operating budget.

“St. John the Evangelist, like a lot of schools in our area, was facing declining enrolment,” said Mario Iatonna, executive superintendent of business for the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. “St. John the Evangelist was one that the review showed ought to be closed.”

But residents weren’t ready to let the oldest school in the diocese of London disappear, citing local population growth projections for keeping the school open.

“The growth for Lakeshore, and almost all of it is in the catchment area of St. John’s and the two neighbouring schools to the north, were 200 families for 2012 and the projections are that is going to increase to at least 300 new (families) in that same area over each year for the next four or five years,” said Mullins, a former lawyer for the board who now operates a private corporate and real-estate law firm.

The Town of Lakeshore initially tried to strike a joint-use agreement with the board to supplement the towns’ aging community centre with additional space, as well as offset the school’s burden on the board’s budget. A lease for three classrooms and the gymnasium during selective non-instructional hours at $50,000 annually was negotiated, but that deal unravelled.

“We negotiated for a while and at the end of the day the terms just weren’t conducive to the town and so the negotiations were suspended,” said Iatonna.

That would likely have spelled the end of the line for the school, but Mullins quickly formed a community association that took over where the town had left off.

“The agreement with the community association is going to provide us funding resources that will continue to allow us to operate the school while they occupy those empty classrooms,” said Iatonna.

“When the town backed out of that agreement a number of the residents said lets raise that money ourselves,” said Mullins, who added the community association he formed will use the space for public events and activities. “The only way it was feasible to do that was if the parish was prepared to be the one who would participate and would be prepared to issue the charitable donation receipts to those who would be contributing that money.”

With the blessing of the local bishop, Fr. David Boutette, pastor of neighbouring St. John the Evangelist parish, agreed to do so — and more.

“I thought well we need to give it a little boost with funds which we had in the parish to support our school,” said Boutette. “For a church to be able to make an investment in its school is key in a rural setting because I think a church, a Catholic church, in terms of evangelizing young families and making them part of the church community, is very dependent on its local school. We had enough funds to be able to start things off with a commitment from the parish itself.”
That initial investment will be $10,000 annually.

The incentive worked, according to Mullins, who found more than 100 residents within a month committed to contribute for the next five years. When Mullins tallied the figures he was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only could they match the lease terms previously negotiated between the board and the township, they’d also have an additional $10,000 worth of wiggle room. This additional capital will help fund a renovation of the leased classrooms which the association intends to take over next September.

With the money raised and the majority of the meetings with the school board complete, the deal is almost complete.

“They want to save their town,” said Iatonna. “They’ve indicated to us that they’ve raised that money and commitments for that money for those six years. Everyone seems to be working together and committed to this, but it’s really the residents out there that are the catalyst.”
Iatonna added the board still needs to ensure those commitments are legitimate — which he doesn’t doubt citing the parish set a $150,000 fundraising target to renovate the parish in the early 1990s that yielded $250,000.

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