August 9, 2020

BY MEGHAN WEATHERALL

Even after all the protest, Chesley still may lose its high school.

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, residents may have to say goodbye to the school, which is located north of Walkerton and Hanover. The Blue Water District School Board listened to the public’s concerns and looked at the logistics of keeping the high school running, but maintained closing the school would be the right decision. Over the last five years there has been a noticeable drop in enrolment. In a report put out by the board, the current enrolment is 159 students. The school was modified to fit around 190 students.

Declining enrolment was pointed out almost eight years ago, during the last accommodation review for Chesley. At that time the proposal to shut down the high school and bus students to surrounding towns was proposed, but board trustees decided instead to make the existing high school into a JK-12 school. The students from Kinghurst, formerly known as Elderslie before the amalgamation of the two elementary schools, started attending Chesley District Community School in 2015. The decision to take this route came after multiple protests from students, teachers, businesses and families. The high school at the time ranked fourth in the Fraser report (beating out all other schools residing in their district). This report is based on the student’s averages on provincewide tests at participating schools.

Two years after the successful transition into a JK-12 school, the board has decided that keeping the high school going is no longer feasible. School spirit and continuing to top the other schools in grades no longer can keep the school running. The decision to close it has put the small town of Chesley (population 1,986) on edge. People, including the MPP and the MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, have voiced their concern about Chesley’s economy after the high school kids are bused elsewhere.

“The closure of a small rural school has a huge negative impact on the community and it can affect not only the young students directly, but also local business and community organizations, undermining the community as a whole,” MP Larry Miller wrote in his public submission to the trustees.

In MPP Bill Walker’s statement, he wrote that he was concerned about the impact the school closure will have on the students and community due to the lengthy busing time and how it leaves little room for after-school activities and jobs.

Multiple stores in Chesley rely heavily on students patronizing their businesses and as after-school employees. The shifts usually require the student to be available by 4 p.m. Chesley’s grocery store, co-owned by Peter Knipfel, is one of the businesses that will take a hit. The grocery store currently has 12-15 students employed, approximately half of their employees. They have been hiring students since their start 30 years ago.

“It will take its toll on us,” said Knipfel. “It will also take a toll on the restaurants and the pizza place. All of these places rely on that lunch traffic to make their business work. We don’t get it all the time. I’m sure the pizza place gets it sometimes, the restaurants get it, but we all share in the lunch traffic. My biggest concern is the economy of this small town. We are faced with severe competition in the larger centres, including Hanover with big box stores like Walmart. We provide a tremendous service by giving more service to our customers. This includes the personal service they get from our students, other workers and carry out service, when we take your groceries out to the car. That’s what we do to be a little different than the big box stores. If we take our high school away and take the kids out of our town the economy will suffer. The chambers of commerce have a survey that they did the last time that we were threatened. It was amazing how much we pay in a year to our students and how much they return it to our economy.”

Not only will transporting the high school students out of the town affect the economy, but it’ll affect hours they can work due to the estimated 2-3 hours of travel time.

“It would affect the weekday hours for sure,” said Knipfel. “We would have to reschedule our whole staff because the students wouldn’t be able to arrive by four o’clock anymore; and that’s when our day staff go home. We will still employ students, they just won’t get as many hours as they used to get. We might lose some student staff because the hours we are going to give them won’t be enough.”

Jacqui Knipfel, Peter’s wife and grocery store co-owner, said, “I think it would drastically affect the hours and number of students we hire. We are only open until seven o’clock on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It would drastically cut their hours so they would only be able to work Thursday, Friday and weekends. They wouldn’t have the rest of it because a lot of them wouldn’t be able to get here until almost five o’clock, so we could have them come in for a two-and-a-half-hour shift but not many people are going to want to do that.”

Former Chesley high school student and grocery store employee, Sherrylee Walpole, believes if she would have had to finish high school elsewhere, she would have chosen to find a job in that town and that many other students would as well due to shift availability.

“It would be more beneficial,” said Walpole. “Not many places in Chesley would offer a three-hour shift and students who are saving for post-secondary need all the hours they can get.”

Rose Albert, a Chesley high school student who is taking an extra year of studies, said, “I worked at Parkview Manor and it was only a five-minute walk from school. If I went to school in another town I wouldn’t be able to participate in after school sports and work since I share a car with my mom.”

The board trustees’ recommendation that the high school be shut down will be discussed and voted on later this year.

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