Commentary, Schools

EDITOR’S NOTE: Straight talk from Ontario school officials needed over closures

Closing two Ontario schools might make sense.

There appear to be merits to putting all students in a single grade in one school.

They would all get the same resources, and probably more.

They would learn the same topics at the same time.

And they would stay with their peers all through school.

But leaders in the Ontario School District have bungled their recent attempt to push ahead.

The blame rests with Bret Uptmor, chair of the Ontario School Board, and the district’s superintendent, Nikki Albisu. Here’s why, and why they need to change course ­– quickly.

Albisu has been pushing the school consolidation for years. She is convinced students ­– all students – would be served better.

But sometime in recent months, Albisu’s team decided that Ontario’s elementary students could all be served with just three school buildings. And, somewhere along the line, two rural schools were put on the closure list – Pioneer and Cairo.

When was that decision made? And by whom?

Albisu to this day remains mum. She won’t answer.

And Albisu’s communications manager hasn’t helped matters either. Taryn Smith not long ago tried to argue the two schools wouldn’t be closed. They just wouldn’t have students in them, she said.

That’s nonsense. Smith’s duty is to be trusted by the community for school information. She damaged that trust.

When the Enterprise in November asked Albisu about the school closures, she tried a bluff. She insisted in blunt language that word of the school closures was old news.

That wasn’t true.

When the Enterprise moved ahead with its story, Albisu changed tactics. She wanted us to hold this “old news.” She needed time to talk to the school board again and the community.

That was surprising because her team already had declared on the district website that Pioneer and Cairo would be closed.

Who wrote that statement? Who approved it? When did it go public?

Smith insisted that the school district had no record to answer any of that.

That would mean some unknown school official decided to close two schools without leaving any paper trail. Education is one of the most documented and bureaucratic of public services. The disclosure about closing two beloved schools didn’t just magically appear. The community can recognize a dodge.

And that dodge was evident at the “community” meeting held in November. District leaders point to the session as their effort to connect with parents about the school plan.

But the meeting was poorly advertised and attended. District leaders beforehand cooked up a presentation they scrubbed of any controversy. We know this because we got our hands on documents showing that was so. Those two school closings? Not a whisper about them.

At the meeting in November, Albisu and her team didn’t listen. They lectured instead. They implied anyone who questioned their plan didn’t want what’s best for students. That’s appallingly blind to how you gain parent support for any change.

Along the way, those on the Ontario School Board haven’t been much more helpful.

Three directors – Mike Blackaby, Matt Stringer and Blanca Rodriguez – ignored public records requests and subsequent questions about that silence. That doesn’t build confidence that school leaders are being honest with the community.

Blackaby worsened matters by threatening to sue the newspaper for using his name in a school story. That sort of bullying wouldn’t be allowed in an elementary school and it shouldn’t be allowed by a school board member.

Recently, Albisu messaged to every family that again told of the impending closures: “Per our plan, Cairo and Pioneer will not have students for the 2024/2025 school year.”

After that had gone out, the school board chair insisted in an email to the Enterprise, “There has not been a decision to close these schools.”

Uptmor wouldn’t explain who was right – him or Albisu.

And here’s how Uptmor responded when asked whether the board would make that decision: “The board will make decisions that are affected by policy and financial decision directed by board policy. The management of the district is administered under the direction of the superintendent.”

No Ontario parent would know what that means.

He subsequently addressed the school changes in another email.

“We let Ms. Albisu do her work and bring the final product to the board for approval,” he wrote. “The board will take action. Direction of what happens at each school I am sure will be part of that action.”

As an aside, Uptmor explained, “We are a fairly young board and are doing our best to learn our roles and responsibilities while getting board work done.”

Over the weekend, Albisu defended her actions in an email.

“I have been open and honest about our plans for this reconfiguration from the beginning,” she wrote. “My real frustration was that you were telling our story before we even had a chance to.”

The community, however, could and should have had much more revealed by Albisu and her team. Albisu knows how to speak plainly when she wants to.

Clearly, changing elementary school education under Albisu’s plan means you only need three school buildings. That results in two being closed.

Why not just say that? Explain why. Show the savings, if any.

Instead, Albisu and the team skirted the truth. That’s never a good practice in public service.

That goes for Uptmor and most of his colleagues on the school board, who have a particular duty to the community and honest government.

There has been one exception – A.J. Sunseri.

Sunseri, new to the board last summer, has publicly shared what he learned and when. He wrote on social media that he found the process “very misleading.” He urged more transparency by the district and the board.

The veterans of public service – Blackaby, Stringer and Rodriguez – could take a lesson from him.

Albisu needs to acknowledge the damage to the district and her credibility. She needs to vow a candor that hasn’t been evident. And she and her team have to find some way to be sure parents and others can speak out and be heard – without the eye rolling.