Nine public elementary schools on the central Mountain are set to undergo a closure review this fall as the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board tries to cut 5,000 empty classroom seats over the next five years.
Despite some doubts about whether they will be able to stick to the schedule and avoid overlapping elections, trustees on Monday approved a staff plan for 14 accommodation reviews, or ARCs, that will include 80 of the board’s 95 elementary schools.
Ellen Warling, manager of planning and accommodation, said the first four reviews planned for this fall target school clusters with the largest number of empty seats.
The nine central Mountain schools – Cardinal Heights, Eastmount Park, Franklin Road, George L. Armstrong, Linden Park, Norwood Park, Pauline Johnson, Queensdale and Ridgemount – have about 1,000 surplus spaces.
Warling said including several schools in a review allows for greater public input and the chance to develop as many accommodation solutions as possible.
“We want to really emphasize, because we included so many of our schools, that inclusion in an ARC does not mean that the school is slated for closure,” she said.
West Mountain trustee Wes Hicks said the ARC schedule is the first time the board has laid out its intentions over a five-year period and he believes doing so encourages people to become involved early in the process.
He said the plan’s guiding principles, including on optimal school capacities, property sizes and grade organization, address past criticisms that reviews are piecemeal and change rules as they go along.
“Here it is. It’s all laid out,” Hicks said. “The calls that I’ve had since this has become a public document is, ‘For the first time we can see ahead, we can see what’s coming.’”
Ward 5 trustee Todd White said he agrees the schedule proceeds “in a reasonable, logical order,” even if it may be unrealistic to complete all 14 reviews in five years.
But he said he’s concerned the repair needs of schools left out of the reviews may get short shrift because the ARC strategy will develop five-year renewal and maintenance plans for schools that survive closure studies.
Dundas trustee Jessica Brennan had the opposite concern – that repair needs at schools in an ARC might be ignored, an apparent reference to Parkside High School, scheduled to close next year.
“I do have to go, personally, to my community, where there was, some of us might argue, a sense that a particular school might close in the future, so we wouldn’t spend any money on it,” she said.
“I just want to know what it is that we have in place so we don’t do that again.”
Senior facilities officer Dan Del Bianco said schools not in an ARC will still get funding from annual provincial repair grants and a long-term master plan has been developed to set guidelines for all expenditures given limited resources.
“Having lived through the secondary accommodation reviews, I think it’s very important to be absolutely transparent as to why we invested in schools, what we did at those schools and why we did it at those schools,” he said.
“I think that was a large component that caused a lot of angst amongst the (review) committee members.”
In addition to the review for the central Mountain cluster, which feeds Hill Park, the plan sets out a schedule for three other Mountain ARCs, although staff stressed the plan is flexible and may change if circumstances warrant it.
A review for the 2014-15 year will include Lawfield, Lisgar and Richard Beasley on the east Mountain, while one the following year will cover nine schools on the west Mountain.
They include Buchanan Park, Chedoke, Gordon Price, Holbrook, James Macdonald, Mountview, R.A. Riddell, Westview and Westwood.
A study in 2016-17 will review another three schools on the east Mountain, C.B. Stirling, Lincoln Alexander and Templemead.