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Joint city-school board session shy on discussion

Delegations leave no time for long-term closure guide

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is questioning the point of a much-anticipated meeting with city council representatives after it failed to allot any time for the two sides to talk to each other.

Jessica Brennan said she was surprised the city-board liaison committee session set aside nearly all of its 135 minutes to public delegations, many of whom reiterated longstanding criticisms of her board’s decision to close Parkview Secondary School.

The Dundas trustee asked Mayor Bob Bratina, who chaired the proceedings, to convene the meeting in a March 27 letter seeking a discussion on “how we can better collaborate” after council called for a moratorium on school closures.

Her letter suggested councillors needed a better understanding of the board’s long-term facilities master plan, which is guiding the closures – an item that was put on the agenda but received no discussion because the afternoon session ran out of time.

“Frankly, I have some quizzical thinking around the terms of reference of this group,” Brennan said after the meeting, the first since last August.

“I asked to talk about the long-term facilities master plan because at the time the mayor and a number of councillors – at the time – were making some commentary on decisions we made a few years ago,” she said.

“I thought, ‘Let’s talk about the plan.’ Well, five o’clock I had to turn around and hand it out because I didn’t have an opportunity to talk about it.”

But Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie, the lone other city politician on hand for the meeting, said he found the public delegations useful, including pleas for the city and board get their “crap together” on a new high school by the Pan Am stadium.

Trustees initially hoped to collaborate with the city at Scott Park but were rebuffed by council. The school is now planned for the 1.5-hectare property that is currently home to Parkview and the former King George school.

“We need to find a way to get back together again and my sense is that discussion is happening behind the scenes, so I’m hoping we can do that,” he said.

McHattie, who is running for mayor, has been pushing a three-pronged solution to school closures, but it also failed to make the session’s agenda even though he told a public meeting two days earlier he planned to raise it.

His plan includes slowing the pace of closures, finding community partners to rent empty school spaces, and having the city and board jointly lobby the province to change the education funding formula, blamed for driving the closures.

“It really didn’t seem to fit into the format of the agenda today,” McHattie said, adding he hopes the joint committee will meet again in June. “But that remains my focus.”

Several of the dozen public delegations criticized trustees for not fighting the funding formula, accusing them of doing the province’s dirty work by closing schools.

“We have to turn that upside down so that we’re at least saying, ‘Closing a school is not an option, repurposing a school is,’” Ward 3 resident Gary Santucci said.

Brennan said afterwards her board constantly protests the funding formula and went so far as to refuse to pass a balanced budget when Premier Mike Harris was in power, a move that put it under provincial supervision.

“We have been vigorous in our advocacy,” she said.

But McHattie said he hasn’t seen much fight in trustees this term and they are too often following the lead of staff in “directly implementing the provincial rules.”

“That’s why we have politicians, to say, ‘Yes, but I’ve got a community out here I’m dealing with and I represent, and this is not acceptable.’”

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