February 12, 2014 6:24 pm
Updated: February 12, 2014 6:26 pm

Supporters fight to save Ontario’s oldest public high school

Watch the video above: Supporters fight to save Ontario’s oldest public high school. Sean Mallen reports. 

The exterio­r of Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI) does not shout historical monument.  The brick façade is unremarkable and the overall look is of a building that has undergone many piecemeal extensions.

Nevertheless it has a heritage unmatched by any other high school in Ontario.

KCVI’s origins go back to 1792, when it was opened as the Kingston Grammar School in a modest building a few blocks away, thanks to a startup grant of £100 authorized by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Through the years, in different names, locations and buildings, it has survived to become the oldest publicly funded high school in Ontario.

The students who have passed through its doors include Sir John A. Macdonald, Ontario’s longest-serving premier Oliver Mowat, author Robertson Davies, Don Cherry (whose grades were lousy but who managed to prosper anyway) and Olympic gold medallist Simon Whitfield.

Robertson Davies (tallest in the back row) at KCVI.

Handout / KCVI Archives

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But KCVI’s long history and illustrious alumni may not save it.  The Limestone District School Board proposes to shut it down, saying hard decisions have to be made because the centre of the city no longer has enough students to support three high schools.

“It is absolutely a painful process,” board chair Laurie French said in an interview with Global News.

Under the proposed plan, the youngest of the three schools, Loyalist C.V.I., would survive.  The second oldest, Queen Elizabeth C.V.I. would be also be closed.  The board is petitioning the Ontario government for $30 million to fund a new school for the KCVI and QECVI students.

“We’ve made some very difficult decisions to be able to get to where we are, as far as offering the best settings for our children,” said French.

School closings are a common and contentious phenomenon all around the province and the arguments over KCVI have been heard in many other towns and cities.  Few neighbourhoods welcome the loss of such a community hub as a school.

In this case, though, the history of the place coupled with a passionate and articulate base of supporters (many of them faculty at Queen’s University) have made for a charged debate that is rattling windows all the way to Queen’s Park.

In advance of my visit to Kingston, KCVI supporters bombarded me with articles and studies.  The school board claims that saving and refurbishing the old building would cost $42 million, compared to the $30 million price tag for a new school.

Hogwash, say the friends of KC. They produced their own study suggesting refurbishment as the most economical option that would also contribute to the hollowing out of the centre of the city.

On a sunny, bone-chilling day, Art Cockfield met me outside of KCVI’s main entrance on Frontenac Street.  A professor of tax law at Queen’s University, he has already written an op-ed piece for the Toronto Star, decrying the province-wide practice of tearing down historic old schools in favour of shiny new ones.

“Beyond the numbers it’s a crazy decision to close this wonderful high school.  It’s 100 per cent full”, he said.

Standing next to him was James Gibson-Bray, a grade 12 student who has been active in the fight to save the school.

“It matters to me.  I think it’s important to have a sense of knowing your history and appreciating your history, because it’s where we’ve come from,” he said.

A couple of kilometres to the north, Terry-Lyn Spence talked to me in front of QECVI.  She is a graduate, has two children currently in attendance and was on a community panel that recommended the plan to close the two high schools in favour of the new school.

“Who doesn’t want a new school?” she asked.

“You could have the building fully accessible.  Not any of the three buildings are fully accessible.”

Spence felt sure that some way could be found to pay tribute to KCVI’s long history.

The preferred location for the new school would be on the QECVI grounds, where there is plenty of space.  It happens to be in the far less affluent north part of Kingston.

A sketch of Kingston Grammar School on the left when it was called Kingston Grammar School. Dated 1835.

Handout / KCVI Archive

The matter is now in the hands of Education Minister Liz Sandals.  If she refuses the board’s request for $30 million to pay for the new school, then KCVI will survive.  A decision is expected sometime this spring.

I spoke to her on the way into a cabinet meeting, asking if she wanted to preside over the closing of Ontario’s oldest high school.

“Well, that’s not the case that’s coming to us,” said Sandals.  “The case will be the business case to build a different school.”

With a possible provincial election looming in the spring, it has become a hot local issue.  The sitting MPP, John Gerretsen, told me that he supports the concept of a new school as the best choice, even if it means the demise of Kingston Collegiate.  Gerretsen, however, is retiring—leaving this hot potato to be tossed among those who wish to succeed him.

If KCVI’s two centuries of history is to come to an end, it will be after the two or three years it takes to build a new school.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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