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Finance chair resigns to protest Westdale school repairs

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The head of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s finance advisory committee has resigned over a decision by trustees to spend nearly $19 million to upgrade two elementary schools in Westdale.

Flamborough trustee Karen Turkstra said the plan is unfair to other projects – including the planned renovation of Highland Secondary School in Dundas – and she especially objects to spending $10.3 million to fix up Dalewood when it has just 367 students and a new school could likely be built for half that amount.

She unsuccessfully pushed last week for the upgrades to Dalewood and G. R. Allan schools – part of an accommodation review, or ARC, that will close Prince Philip school – to be referred back to staff for more study, a bid that lost on a 6-5 vote.

“It just doesn’t make any fiscal sense to me, and as a taxpayer I would be upset about this,” said Turkstra, who has an extensive background in financial management.

“We’ve gone through an extremely emotional ARC process and some decisions were made. I think once those decisions are costed, then you need a review of the decision,” she said.

“If say I’m going to renovate my house and it comes in at twice as much as I can afford, then I’m not going to renovate my house.”

Staff initially projected the renovations would cost just $5.8 million. The province is contributing $3.8 million to the $8.5-million bill for G.R. Allan, but nothing toward Dalewood, which is listed in “poor” condition by staff, a rating that means repair bills exceed 65 per cent of the cost of a replacement school.

The Dalewood and G.R. Allan renovations are among six projects approved by trustees last week that will cost an estimated $100.9 million, about half of which will come from Ministry of Education capital and school-repair grants.

The ministry last month announced it will provide $31.8 million for a new high school in the lower city to replace Delta, Parkview and Sir John A. Macdonald – one the board hopes will be built near the new Pan Am stadium.

A $5.4-million addition to Saltfleet District in upper Stoney Creek will get full provincial funding, but the board will foot the entire bill for a $27.4-million high school on the southeast Mountain as part of a plan to close Barton, Hill Park and Mountain, as well as a $15-million expansion at Highland.

The latter will accommodate students from Parkside, scheduled to close in June 2014.

The board had unsuccessfully applied for provincial funding to rebuild Highland at an estimated cost of $25 million and the expansion is its Plan B.

Board chair Tim Simmons, who supports the Dalewood and G.R. Allan renovations, said he’s sorry to see Turkstra resign, but committee chairs and all trustees must be willing to concede to the will of the majority.

He said the repairs will allow the schools to serve thousands of students over the next 15 years and it’s cheaper in the long run to do them all at once rather than piecemeal.

“The boiler at Dalewood is running almost day-to-day and it needs to be fixed, so the board is moving forward with those decisions and we’ve asked staff to come up with their best thinking on paying for decisions right across the system,” Simmons said.

“If we’re looking to save taxpayers’ money because every dollar is important, we need to do (repairs) ideally at the same time, so you don’t tear a wall apart, fix something, put it back together and then tear it apart again a year later to fix something else.”

But Turkstra said she hopes at least one trustee will rethink the situation and allow for a reconsideration of the Westdale expenditures at the Feb. 25 board meeting.

She said she fears not doing so will leave the board short on funding for future closure review decisions – 14 elementary ARCs are planned over the next five years – and deprive Highland of the money it needs.

“There’s an inequity there, in terms of the capital dollars we’re willing to spend (at Highland), and then really there’s going to be no money left down the road. So what – the early bird gets the worm?”

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