An entire neighbourhood is reeling after learning its school and adjacent park amenities could be shuttered as early as next year.
“If the school closed down, that sense of community would be gone,” said Gina Mahil, the chair of Woodward elementary school’s Parent Advisory Council.
The possibility of Woodward closing has Shellmont-area parents such as Mahil scrambling to prevent the school grounds from falling into the abyss, as has happened at Rideau Neighbourhood Park.
Rideau elemenatry school was closed in 2003, but the playground remained a neighbourhood hub. However, the site has recently become a point of contention as the school district argues that the playground equipment had reached the end of its life and, in September, had most of it removed.
Frustrated Rideau-area residents are now looking to the city to replace it, but the city notes the playground is on school district land, not city land.
Mahil and others contend closing Woodward will also have detrimental, unintended consequences to their beloved park, which has seen recent upgrades to it over the past five years, thanks in large part to PAC fundraising.
In 2012, the park got a new playground and walking path and fundraising is presently being undertaken for an outdoor classroom.
Parent Melody Lam said the new outdoor amenities will benefit the entire neighbourhood, and even the city at large.
But all of that is in jeopardy after the district shortlisted Woodward and 15 other schools in order to close up to five schools by 2017, following an order by the Ministry of Education to bring district-wide school capacity up to 95 per cent to qualify for seismic upgrades.
Woodward has high operating costs, is well below capacity and needs $12.7 million of seismic remediation work.
Mahil and Lam admitted the numbers don’t look good, but said they feel the fact Woodward is a small school lends itself to a better quality education.
“Everyone knows each other and the students work so well together because of that,” said Mahil.
They tout Woodward’s stellar record of sports teams and community events as just some of the school’s lasting legacy.
If Woodward was shut down, it could still stay open temporarily — for five to seven years — as a satellite school for other students as their schools get seismic upgrades. But that’s of little consolation to Mahil.
“We felt ownership” of the school, she said, pondering how the park would remain as good as it is now without a PAC to maintain it.
Parent Marjorie Chu is raising safety concerns, as well.
For one, students would have to cross major arterial roads if Woodward is closed, noted Chu.
Parent Lorna Ko is worried about the park being abandoned.
“I’m not sure I would feel safe. Right now the teachers and kids are playing here and you know it’s kind of safe. If no one’s checking up, I don’t know what will happen or what’s going to be found here,” said Ko.
Community activist and Richmond News columnist Jim Wright said Rideau-area residents are dealing with an abandoned playground. With no PAC to fundraise for a new one, the site has sat empty since last September.
District secretary treasurer Mark De Mello admitted there was an oversight with the playground’s maintenance and with more closures forecasted, the district and city will need to develop a game plan to maintain green spaces.
Now, according to Coun. Carol Day, city council has decided to build a new playground on its portion of the park (most school sites/fields are split between the district and the city) in 2017.
Coun. Chak Au had wanted it built immediately.
Wright said the playground, which he calls a “social centre for the community,” would be better on the original site, next to the swings and park benches.
What is decided, will come down to city-district negotiations on how to maintain shuttered school sites.
Presently, the parks department mows all school fields, while the district provides rental space for city programs in return, according to De Mello.
Day said, while that partnership is good, the broader picture of planning and cooperation between the city and district is not.
“It seems like the school board is doing their thing and the city is densifying all over the place.”
Worsening the problem, in Day’s opinion, is the ministry’s order, which doesn’t factor in future growth. She noted the Gardens condo development will add some 500 residential units close to Woodward.
“The ministry has to look past the end of their nose,” said Day, whose children attended Woodward.