Chapman's Ice Cream Fights To Save Only School In Markdale, Ont.

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A Canadian ice cream company based in a small Ontario town is trying to keep the single school in its community open amid dozens of proposed closures province-wide — but some are cautioning against private intervention in public schools.

Schools like the Beavercrest Community elementary school in Markdale, Ont., — located about 150 kilometres north of Toronto —are slated for closure across Ontario as school boards grapple with declining enrolment and less funding.

Parents in rural areas and small towns have protested the closures, claiming their kids may have to spend up to four hours a day on buses, travelling to and from their new schools. They also argue that some kids may not be able to participate in extracurricular activities like sports and clubs because they'd be left stranded after the activities are over.

Chapman's Ice Cream, a family-owned frozen dessert maker, is trying to prevent such scenarios for children in Markdale, a town of less than 1,500 people, where it has been based since 1973.

25 per cent of students are children of employees

The way the company can successfully do that remains up in the air — it has considered buying the school, as well as helping to construct an entirely new facility — but the ice cream maker says it is determined to find a solution.

"It really means a lot to our community to have an elementary school,'' said company vice-president Ashley Chapman, who attended Beavercrest when he was a kid. "It's about the students in Beavercrest: all 200 of them being shuffled up and sent to the other schools in the area.''

Chapman noted that about 25 per cent of students at the elementary school are his employees' children.

One of those students is Aidan Shropshire, in Grade 2, whose father works for Chapman's.

aidan shropshireAidan Shropshire, 7, poses with his sister Kendra, 2, and parents Shannon and Matt at the Beavercrest Community School in Markdale, Ontario on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016. (Photo: CP)

Shannon Shropshire said her son is loving and bright — gets straight As and Bs — and is into electronics. But he also has autism, and Shropshire said she's worried her son may not be able to adapt to the changes that would come with a closure of Beavercrest.

"He'll have to go to a new town where nobody knows him,'' she said. "He's already having anxiety about the school closing. This is a child who doesn't like any kind of change."

Chapman said he wants to help children like Aidan.

Initially, he suggested his ice cream company buy the Beavercrest school and lease it back to the school board. But he later learned the process involves the board declaring the school to be surplus property, which then triggers a 180-day consultation period before private companies can bid on the building.

And that process presents its own problems.

ice cream scoopChapman's Ice Cream, based in a small Ontario town is trying to keep the single school in its community open. (Photo: Shutterstock)

"Going forward, it makes it next-to-impossible for the ministry to justify building a new school in the area, simply because we've already told them that we don't need a school in the area,'' he explained.

So instead, Chapman said the ice cream company will help the board figure out an ideal location for a new school in Markdale, which the company could help build. Chapman suggested the new building could also be used to accommodate students from nearby communities.

He noted that the current school has a student population that is too small for the building it is in and there aren't enough funds to maintain the aging facility.

Chapman suggested using a "community-help model'' for a potential new school building where Chapman's, the municipality and other organizations would "pull together enough funding to make it very attractive for the Ministry of Education to put their money on the line to build a new school.''

"It's important we make sure there's fairness across the province."

But Heather Irwin, a spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Education, said there are rules about what kind of money school boards can accept.

"Funds raised for schools should be used to complement, not to replace public funding for education,'' she said.

Irwin declined to comment on the specific case in Markdale, saying, ``local school boards are in the best position to make decisions that impact their local communities and we need to support the school boards as they are making these tough decisions about their schools.''

A representative from the Bluewater District School Board said the board is always interested in "potential partnership opportunities'' with groups and individuals.

Too much private intervention could create two-tier system

But Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, an independent organization that researches public education and makes policy recommendations, said there are ethical concerns when private companies give money to public schools.

"It's important we make sure there's fairness across the province,'' she said, adding that too much private industry intervention could create a two-tier public education system with "have and have-not'' schools.

The real solution, she said, is changing the funding formula. Allot schools more money per pupil, to bring the formula up to date with the current average number of students in each school, and offer top-ups to schools with lower populations, she suggested.