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photo by Gord Bowes

photo by Gord Bowes

Dawn Danko (left), a Queensdale parent, listens closely during a public meeting on elementary school closures on the central Mountain Oct. 8.

Moratorium call fails to halt clock on school closures

Hamilton public school trustees scheduled to make final decision in mid-June

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Amid calls by city councillors and the area’s MPP to slow down school closures, the clock is now ticking on proposals to shutter up to three of eight central Mountain public elementary schools, with a final decision scheduled for mid-June.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees on Monday formally accepted without comment staff and voluntary accommodation review committee recommendations on how to cut between 670 and 750 empty seats.

As mandated by the province, there will now be a 60-day “cooling off period” to allow the public to absorb and respond to the recommendations, with a formal meeting to hear delegations set for May 6.

Board chair Jessica Brennan said trustees will also use the time to study the options, listen to the community and ask for additional information as needed.

She said although she’s willing to discuss slowing things down, trustees have already delayed by a year the next round of closure reviews, initially set for this September, and are following the process set out when the current ones began last fall.

Trustees have also formally received recommendations in three other areas of the city that could close eight more schools and rebuild three existing ones, but can always decide to alter the timelines, she said.

“Although councillors represent the community in a different way and also are another body, they may not individually understand our financial crunches,” Brennan said.

“I thought we’d already had those conversations, but sometimes you have to have those things over and over again. That’s perfectly fine. On the other hand, they do have legitimate concerns,” she said.

“Each of these buildings, beyond being an educational facility, may represent something else in the community and in each community it might be different.”

Hamilton Mountain NDP MPP Monique Taylor, who last week urged the province to halt the current round of reviews, blamed the proposed closures on a flawed funding formula that only gives the board $8 million per year to repair all schools.

“That has caused our schools that are now 50 and 60 years old to crumble,” she said. “There’s been no upkeep on those properties and now everybody’s scrambling to close schools.”

Taylor said her party doesn’t have a position on how the provincial funding formula should change, but a moratorium would allow time for alternatives to closures, like finding community partners to fill empty classrooms at under-used schools.

All four accommodation reviews issued a call for such potential partners, but there were no takers. Taylor blamed the lack of interest on poor maintenance that makes schools unattractive to outside users.

“We need to make these schools structurally healthy to encourage people then that this is a possibility, that we can be moving in there and it’s cheaper for them to stay together than it is for them to be ran on their own,” she said.

Central Mountain trustee Lillian Orban said she felt the review of eight schools was too big before it began, especially since the community was still reeling from the pending closure of Hill Park Secondary School.

She said she’s glad public input led staff to revise an original proposal to close four schools, but calls a moratorium “a great idea,” allowing more time to study transportation costs and how many students will switch to the Catholic board.

“It’ll give us time to look at the big picture,” Orban said. “The reason I think it would be a great idea is because we have not built good relationships with our communities.”

Trustees have three recommendations — two from an accommodation review committee (ARC) that met for four months and one from staff — to consider when making a decision about central Mountain elementary school closures:

ARC recommendation 1
• Close G.L. Armstrong in June 2015 and move JK-Grade 6 students to Queensdale or Eastmount Park and grades 7 and 8 students to Franklin Road and renovated Linden Park, which would become a JK-8 school.
• Ridgemount would close in June 2015, with students moving to Linden Park or Pauline Johnson/Cardinal Heights.
• Pauline Johnson and Cardinal Heights would close in 2017 if new school funding is granted; the new school would be built on that site or possibly south of Linc.

ARC recommendation 2
• Close Eastmount Park in June 2015 and move students to G.L. Armstrong.
• Close Linden Park in June 2015, with students moving to either Franklin Road or Queensdale (JK-6) and G.L. Armstrong (7-8).
• Ridgemount and Pauline Johnson would remain JK-5 schools and Cardinal Heights 6-8.

Staff recommendation
• Close Eastmount Park in June 2015 and move students to G.L. Armstrong.
• Close Linden Park in June 2015; students go to Queensdale (which becomes a JK-8 school) or Franklin Road.
• Close Cardinal Heights in June 2015, with students moving to Pauline Johnson or Ridgemount, which would get a four-room addition.
At the outset, board staff recommended closing Queensdale, Eastmount Park and Linden Park close in June. They also recommended Cardinal Heights close in June 2015 if the province provided funding for a new school there that would open in September 2017.

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