OFA president Keith Currie lists rural school systems as one of the top priorities for the new decade to help promote a strong and vibrant rural economy
By Jackie Clark
The unions representing elementary and secondary school teachers are locked in ongoing labour disputes with the government, resulting in single-day and escalating strike action. In rural communities, schools need both immediate action and long-term investment to improve. Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) listed a strong rural school network in the top three OFA priorities for the new decade in a Jan 3. statement.
“Rural schools are essential to attract and retain local employees by providing quality education and critical community hubs. An investment in physical and social infrastructure, like schools and health care, will provide opportunities and reasons for families to look to rural Ontario as an affordable and ideal place to work, live, play and invest,” Currie said in the statement.
Improving rural education “ties back into our Producing Prosperity campaign about distributing economic development; in particular, looking at rural Ontario,” Currie told Farms.com.
Developing the rural economy in Ontario needs to involve services such as financial management, technological support, equipment maintenance, and other services being readily available in rural areas, Currie explained.
“We need those services relatively close. If we have a strong rural system, that’s going to encourage people with that skill set to actually invest in coming into rural communities and putting down roots. They can get into these kinds of jobs and have a place for their families to thrive, and part of that is having a vibrant rural school system,” he said.
However, in some rural communities, low school-age populations are leading to closures and long bus commutes for students. Sometimes this means that students are unable to participate in extracurricular activities, Currie said.
Keeping rural schools open with strong programming not only provides opportunities for students, but also for the broader community.
“In a lot of our communities, the school is a central hub; it’s a community centre,” Currie said.
With investment from the province, rural schools could provide a venue for sporting events, meetings, and night classes for adults, he added.
It’s important for the government to keep rural communities in mind “especially when you’re talking about the education system and how we can make schools thrive, not just as an education facility but as a community facility as well,” he said.
Investing in rural communities is “not a short-term fix,” Currie said, but it is a solution with multiple benefits.
“If the government is investing in rural Ontario and driving the economy in rural Ontario better, it’s going to stop the bleeding of people running out of the rural into urban and it’s going to maintain and grow the (rural) population base,” Currie explained.
The OFA understands the fiscal challenges in the province, however “cutting your way to prosperity just doesn’t happen. Return on investment does require investment,” he said.
He hopes that the provincial government can find solutions to address education needs in rural parts of the province soon. Administrators also need to be involved in helping problem-solve on funding issues, he said.
“When cuts are made in the school system, it always starts at the teaching side and it is unfortunate because that’s where the most resources should be put,” Currie said.
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