Learning Centre debate turns into shouting match
By Liz Dadson
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John Smallwood (L) and Myles Murdoch of the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative address council
What began as a discussion about a proposed Learning Centre in Kincardine, turned into a shouting match between the mayor and deputy mayor at the Kincardine council meeting last night (April 21).
John Smallwood and Myles Murdoch of the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative presented their proposed business plan for turning the old Westario Power building into a Learning Centre.
The collaborative has been operating in Goderich for about four years, with professors from the University of Western Ontario teaching students through long-distance education. Courses have also been taught in Bruce County, and the non-profit organization wants to set up a base of operations out of Kincardine.
Its goal is to offer post-secondary education to people in the rural areas who lack the confidence and funding to attend college or university in the city, said Smallwood. To do this, the collaborative's board of directors expect to use the old Westario building, with funding from Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and the Municipality of Kincardine.
In its business plan, the collaborative shows income of $125,000/year from OPG, plus $25,000/year from the municipality, $4,000 from Huron County (in-kind), $5,000 from Goderich, $250 in membership fees, $6,000 in course fees, and $500 in donations.
On the expenses side, it shows salaries for Goderich and Kincardine at $60,000, office rent in Goderich of $5,000, office expenses of $6,000, promotion and advertising of $6,000, facility rental in Goderich of $2,200, telephone, Internet and heat in Goderich of $3,000, utilities in Kincardine of $25,000, travel and expenses of $1,800, accounting and legal of $2,000, miscellaneous of $1,000, rent at the Kincardine facility of $50,000, website maintenance of $1,000, and insurance of $2,000.
Councillor Kenneth Craig asked how that is sustainable, if the OPG and Kincardine funding is for only four years.
"That's been a concern of ours," said Smallwood. "To this point, we had no corporate sponsorship, so we were elated to receive the funding from OPG."
Craig said the difficulty he faces is not knowing what has been negotiated for the Westario building because council has not been privy to any of that discussion. "As a council, we have not seen any negotiated agreement for use of that building," he said.
Mayor Larry Kraemer, who was part of the discussion with OPG and is also a director on the learning collaborative, said nothing has changed at the facility. Currently, the E-learn network operates out of it as well as McKechnie Pharmacy. However, once McKechnie's moves back to the Kincardine Community Medical Clinic location, the opportunity presents itself to use that building for something else, he said.
Deputy mayor Laura Haight pointed out that Smallwood came to council last summer and council agreed to support the concept of a learning centre, but it was up to the collaborative and its staff to seek letters of support, draw up a business plan and get corporate sponsorship.
"I'm not clear on the space you need," she said. "Have you checked other facilities in Kincardine? What about the old liquor store or the high school?"
Smallwood said that in Goderich the difficulty with using the high school is that it is not always accessible. If the collaborative has its own space, it can operate on its own schedule.
Kraemer said council had indicated its support of a learning centre in the old Westario building and the proposal by the collaborative stems from that. Council had agreed that the municipality would pay half the rent that Westario Power was paying, which amounts to $25,000/year, and the utilities which are another $25,000/year, he said. Then, OPG, through the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), came up with the rest of the money to fund the learning centre.
"Council is not operating the school," he said, "we're leaving that to the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative. And we're approaching other groups, to look at a training board and adult learning there."
Haight said she supports post-secondary education but she does not believe it should be paid for through property taxes, which is what is proposed by giving the Westario building over to a learning centre.
She said the building is a valuable asset and should be appraised. It could be worth $1 million to $2 million - allowing free use of that asset impacts on property taxes, she said.
Concerned about the process
More than her concerns about losing the building, Haight said she is concerned about the process taken by the mayor in using the Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) agreement between OPG and the municipality to get funding for the learning centre.
"The province bears the responsibility for education," she said. "We've already been sucked down the rabbit hole once for health care. I don't see any pressing need for post-secondary education in Kincardine."
She asked why the collaborative is not working with the province on this rather than the municipality. "Your website says that you have courses beginning in September at the old Westario Power building and I had no clue we had any agreement in place," she said.
Councillor Marsha Leggett said one thing she learned from the night's meeting was that all of council does not know what's going on. "It's time for council to sit down and find out what's been offered and where we're going on this," she said.
"I agree," said councillor Ron Hewitt. "We're going around in circles here. We need to find out what the building's worth - is it $1 million, $2 million, $5 million? Then let's get all the facts on the table and decide what we're going to rent it for and what other options there are to consider."
When asked about the number of students who attend courses in Goderich, Smallwood said about 25-30 have taken the sociology course which runs September to April. Most half-credit courses see about 15-20 students and those courses run twice a year. He said the collaborative really needs just two classrooms, not the whole building.
"Council must have an in-depth discussion about the process undertaken to secure this funding (from OPG)," said Craig. "As a council we've received more information about the lifeguards we hire than we've seen about this half-a-million-dollar contract. I want to see how the decision was made. Somebody talked to OPG about getting funding through the DGR agreement. The process has been woefully negligent."
"There was no negotiation," argued Kraemer. "There was no authorization from council."
He said a clause in the DGR agreement noted OPG would support proposals for vocational schools and commercially-reasonable efforts toward a centre of energy excellence. "OPG decided what it wanted to do," he said, "and the municipality has agreed to do this. If you don't think it's the right path, don't do it."
At this point, things began to turn ugly.
Haight took offence with Kraemer saying OPG had decided to support this proposal all on its own.
Reading from a letter, dated Nov. 4, 2009, written by Kraemer and directed to Albert Sweetnam, executive vice-president, OPG, it states:
"Recognizing there are few things more important to a community than access to quality education, I am writing you in the hopes of continuing the dialogue begun earlier in the summer with Chuck Pautler and Pat McNeil on enhancing the long-term education infrastructure to our community's benefit. Specifically, our discussions have related to securing OPG's support for one of our community's key educational initiatives - the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative and Centre - as part of the DGR Host Community Agreement."
Kraemer goes on to state that he is a volunteer on the collaborative's board of directors and the collaborative will play an important role in the economic development of the region and in expanded employment opportunities for residents.
"The Kincardine Learning Centre also will help support OPG's internal hiring with regards to the Deep Geologic Repository (DGR)," he writes. "As we embark on this campaign for quality, affordable, local training and education, I would ask that OPG consider a leadership grant of $500,000 to assist the collaborative with its development plans over the next four years (2009-2012). While the collaborative has secured the Westario building in Kincardine to house the Learning Centre, we have to meet an immediate challenge of obtaining resources to build capacity at the Lake Huron Learning Centre in Kincardine and develop partnerships and programming.
"If $500,000 is considered too large a contribution to tie back directly to the DGR host community agreement, I would ask you to consider the remainder of the sponsorship within your Corporate Citizenship Program."
"As a member of council, I did not know you were communicating with OPG," said Haight. "I think we should all know. We act as a corporate body, not as nine individuals."
"I came to this group for a motion of support (for a learning centre at the Westario building)," said Kraemer. "You could have asked any questions you wanted to ask. I believe it was supported. If you don't like it, don't support it. OPG has suggested that this grant come to the municipality but council can always say no.
"I have not hidden my intent to bring post-secondary education to this community. I've operated completely within the agreement. In all cases, we have to honour our agreement."
"You need the authorization of council before you make these proposals," retorted Haight.
"If I could throw some wood on this fire," said councillor Randy Roppel. "Larry (Kraemer), you chastised me not too long ago for saying 'I' instead of 'we', but your letter is riddled with 'I' not 'we'."
Craig said the municipality should be pleased with the offer of support from OPG. However, council should have been informed of the process. Now, he said, the discussion is after-the-fact.
"I can't support the use of DGR agreement funding on this proposal," he said.
Hewitt said his recollection of the DGR agreement is that OPG can spend the money on whatever it wants. His concern is that council gets enough rent for the building.
Without a resolution in sight, Craig suggested that all the details of this proposal and the DGR agreement be brought to the council table at the next corporate services committee meeting May 12.
"This was OPG's generous support to provide money for a learning centre," argued Kraemer.
"Through some vague clause in the DGR agreement," said Haight. "OPG did not contact the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative. It came from you. It was initiated by you. OPG's support could have come in any number of forms. But in this case, one person determined the direction, and the process was not transparent."
Kraemer made more comments about proper process being followed.
"You're deluded, Larry," said Haight.
"So are you," shot back Kraemer.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010