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Trustees clash over Henderson school naming choice

Debate comes as province agrees to pay for new south high school

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The land is already in hand, the provincial funding freshly in place. But like the decision to build it, the naming of the new public high school on the south Mountain didn’t go down smoothly.

After a 20-miniute debate, trustees opted to choose Nora Frances Henderson Secondary School by a 6-4 vote on Monday, honouring the pioneering Hamilton councillor whose name once adorned the renamed Juravinski Hospital.

Henderson was favoured by Ward 7 trustee Lillian Orban and was one of three names submitted by a volunteer naming committee, along with astronaut Chris Hadfield and anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

Orban said all three names were worthy, but Henderson “was just a little push ahead” of the others during the committee’s deliberations.

“I don’t think there’s a person on the Mountain that doesn’t know this name,” she said. “Of course, I’m a little biased, I would say. She’s a woman on top of that and not many women have served the community as well as this particular woman.”

But Ward 8 trustee Wes Hicks objected that there were no educators among the three finalists and that the committee rejected names associated with Barton and Hill Park, which the new school is replacing.

He proposed E.A. Hutton, a former Hill Park principal, school superintendent and education director, but could only muster the support of two other trustees.

Ward 3 trustee Tim Simmons meanwhile said he couldn’t support Henderson because she crossed union picket lines, most famously during the 1946 Stelco strike.

“No matter what your politics, when you’re an elected official you have certain responsibilities and certain boundaries you need to consider,” he said. “I don’t think this would be the right person for one of our secondary schools.”

But Judith Bishop, trustee for wards 1 and 2, said the board forms volunteer naming committees to offer three choices and it’s important to not only respect that process, but to select one with community acceptance.

“I don’t believe that we can just leave that work on one side and not pay any attention to it,” she said. “This represents the community’s voice in terms of what would be an acceptable name.”

The debate capped a whirlwind few days for the school that began with last Friday’s announcement that the province will fund its construction.

An “absolutely thrilled” board chair Jessica Brennan said although Queen’s Park hadn’t yet provided a dollar amount, she assumes it will match a business case submitted last fall.

The board requested $31.8 million for school, the same grant it got last year for a new high school by the Pan Am stadium.

It had proposed to partner with the French public board at a 10.4-hectare site in Shermal Estates, located south of Rymal Road near the corner of Upper Sherman Avenue, but the funding is only for a stand-alone English high school.

Brennan said although the school-closure process has been difficult for many, she’s encouraged to see the province reward her board for making tough decisions to reduce the number of empty seats.

“In the community there are people very excited about this kind of revitalization and rationalization and improvement on programming for students,” the Dundas trustee said.

“There are others who have legitimate concerns about their individual neighbourhood community school that’s been there for a long time and (ask) is this really the best way to respond to the funding crunch,” she said.

“To be able to receive funding from the government that allows us to move forward with the second half of that decision, of building new schools, I think is wonderful for us all.”

Orban, who has steadfastly opposed Hill Park’s closure, said she’s surprised the province turned down the partnership with the French board, which called for an adjoining school for 500 students in grades 7 to 12.

She said the funding is still “a happy occasion to celebrate,” but now wonders if the board must sell Barton, Hill Park and other properties as originally planned to pay for the high school, expected to open in 2016 and accommodate 1,250 students.

“If we’re going to be selling the Hill Park site, a developer could go in there and then we’d have all this excess students coming to us, which we’d be happy about,” Orban said.

“But to me, that’s significant to hang onto that because if we don’t watch out, all our sites will be gone, and then what? Where are we getting the money?”

Last Friday’s funding announcement also includes money for a new elementary school in Ancaster’s booming Meadowlands, one to hold 500 to 600 students and estimated to cost $7 million to $10 million.

The board came up empty on six other board capital priorities submitted last fall, including $16 million to renovate Highland Secondary School in Dundas to accommodate students from Parkside, slated to close in June 2015.

But Brennan said funding for the new schools frees up dollars to address Highland, which is being renamed Dundas Valley Secondary School, and other projects.

“It’s all very, very good news,” she said. “It may allow us to do renovations on the remaining secondary schools and elementary schools that are not closing and that aren’t getting additions built, but that need new elements.”

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