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High school funding frees up $30M for other upgrades

But Hamilton trustees cry foul over grant changes for under-capacity schools

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Provincial funding for a new public high school on the south Mountain is freeing up $30 million to upgrade other Hamilton high schools, starting with new science labs and tech shops.

Senior facilities officer Dan Del Bianco said no longer having to self-finance the new Nora Frances Henderson High School allows trustees to use proceeds from selling closed high schools to fix those staying open.

While staff is still preparing a work schedule, priority will be given to Ancaster, Sherwood and Westmount because they’re listed as being in poor shape in the board’s long-term facilities master plan, he told trustees on Monday.

Del Bianco said the upgrades will initially focus on science labs and tech shops, but could include other spaces like gyms, libraries and washrooms.

“As we go into each and every secondary school we will address their needs on a one-on-one basis because, as you can imagine, the needs of Orchard Park may be different than Glendale, may be different than Sherwood,” he said.

“But at the bare minimum we know that science labs and tech shops will be done.”

Only central Mountain trustee Lillian Orban opposed the plan, arguing the money should also go toward fixing up elementary schools.

“There will be students graduating that will not have had a lab in their schools in the elementary programs,” she said. “What about our other roles, to educate all our students?”

But Ward 4 Ray Mulholland said elementary school closures in coming years will allow similar upgrades at that level.

Staff has projected the sale of vacant and closed school properties will raise $176 million over the next eight years – $102 million of it at the elementary level.

“The money is going to be well spent,” Mulholland said of the high school repairs. “It’s going to go to upgrading two particular things, science and tech. That’s where we should start.”

The planned upgrades come as trustees are writing Queen’s Park to protest changes to the “top-up” operating grants that the province provides for schools whose enrolment is below capacity.

Treasurer Stacey Zucker said boards will now only receive a 10 per cent top-up for schools that are less than 65 per cent full, compared to 15 per cent in the past.

Those over 65 per cent capacity will still qualify for a 15 per cent top-up, but only to cover up to 95 per cent of operating costs, rather than the full bill, she said.

Zucker said there are presently 17 schools below 65 per cent capacity, 11 of which are undergoing closure studies.

Trustee Judith Bishop, chair of the finance committee, said the board stands to lose between $500,000 and $1 million per year from the grant changes.

She said trustees are doing their best to reduce under-capacity schools, including through current and planned closure studies, but can only move so fast.

“We’re wondering what more we can possibly do,” she said, noting it often takes a couple of years to implement a closure decision.

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