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Trustees want more aggressive push on school partnerships

Board staff asked to develop detailed list of available school sites

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board will tear a page from the real estate industry by developing a list of under-used schools that are available for community partnerships.

Vice-chair Todd White pushed for the more aggressive approach to drumming up interest in filling empty classrooms after attempts in the past two years largely came up empty.

He said although the board sent out 1,200 letters to potential partners, it didn’t give recipients any idea of which schools were in the mix.

White said that likely meant the board missed out on some opportunities, including at Prince Philip Elementary School, which closes at the end of this month.

He said he was surprised to hear from Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie recently that McMaster University had approached him about renting space at the west-end school if the city acquires the site.

“They didn’t know necessarily that there was space available at a school really close to them,” White told members of the board’s finance subcommittee.

“If I were selling my house, I would show it off and tell people what that has to offer. We’re not marketing the space available for these long-term partnerships,” he said.

“Even as a trustee I don’t know what’s available. If I were any third party I certainly would have no idea what’s available.”

While agreeing the board should create a list of available schools, trustee Judith Bishop said the ability to attract partners is hampered by “huge contradictions” in provincial policies.

She said the Ministry of Education both encourages the board to find partners to fill unused classrooms and penalizes it for keeping under-used schools open by not providing enough money to operate them.

“They are not in the least bit interested in where the school fits in our municipality,” Bishop said. “They’re not in the least bit interested in how it links to other services in our community, where moving a school will have a bad effect on a neighbourhood because there’s no public building in that neighbourhood.”

Trustees also asked staff to study whether the board can “push the envelope” in interpreting ministry guidelines on partnerships that initially favour schools with 200 or more unused pupil spaces and that are at 60 per cent of capacity or less.

The guidelines require partners to pay all associated costs, including for a separate entrance and any other physical upgrades, a provision staff said is often a deal breaker.

White said he believes the board has taken a too-strict interpretation of the rules even though they suggest the 200 empty spaces and utilization criteria as a starting point.

“It doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt,’” he said. “They are encouraging us to think outside the box.”

Mountain trustee Lillian Orban opposed expanding the scope of partnerships, arguing they should be limited to those “that have something to do with kids.”

“This is going way beyond it,” she said. “I’m against it if we’re going to end up being landlords – I really am – for the sake of keeping schools open.”

Board chair Jessica Brennan said although she’s all for revamping the partnership strategy, as long as trustees are “the sole owner of the idea” it can’t go anywhere.

She said the city and provincial ministries need to work with the board, as the city will potentially do on a proposed new school in Greensville that would include a public library and other community amenities.

“There has to be a partnership for partnership,” she said, suggesting the initiative needs dedicated staff. “This is a political issue at some level.”

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