If there is one partnership that had deteriorated more severely than the fraying relationship between Mayor Bob Bratina and city council, it’s between the city and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
For years the public school board and the city had cordial, if not buddy-buddy relationship. But over the last eight years or so, since the public board began closing schools and selling off land, the relationship between trustees and councillors had become downright Cold War-ish.
Bratina’s recent attempt to transform himself into some sort of school saviour, opposing the scheduled closings of Parkview, Delta and Sir John A. Macdonald high schools smacks of political opportunism at its most prevalent. But there is a method to his madness. Closing schools and preserving green space in the city remains a seething caldron of emotion within almost every ward in Hamilton, which could tip the balance in a close election race. For some residents, preserving schools has overwhelmed amalgamation as the default issue within parts of Hamilton.
Bratina told members of two Ward 3 community groups at a recent government issues committee meeting that if they were looking for a champion to save Delta High School, which the board approved to close in 2012, then he was their man to do it. He has also made it a point of saying closing Delta and Parkview, where he joined students in protect to the closing, was the wrong way to go.
Talk to any Hamilton councillor and they will tell you a horror story about working with the school board to preserve a school or board land.
Scott Duvall, Ward 7 councillor has felt the sting of a board decision surrounding the closing of Hill Park High School and the bitter taste still remains in his mouth.
“We seem to get the short end of the stick,” he said recently. Duvall is now having to deal with the impact of the public school board building its new education centre in his ward, where it will impact the surrounding local neighbourhood.
Dundas councillor Russ Powers, who is as canny a politician as they come, and is measured when talking to the public, was almost encouraging a local Dundas volunteer group, Dundas Works, which is opposed to the board plan to close Parkside, to seek out candidates to run against long-time local trustee Jessica Brennan, who will have an uphill fight to remain trustee if she runs again.
“Take advantage of the year-long delay of Parkside’s closure to make it an election issue,” said Powers.
The public board felt the full brunt of council’s anger toward what politicians consider an unresponsive and arrogant school board last summer when it rejected a deal to partner with the board to build a recreation and senior centre in the Pan Am precinct on the former Scott Park High School land. Councillors agreed later to build their own recreation facility without any help from the board, which is looking to construct a new school in the area.
That angry feeling from ward councillors did not happen overnight. Residents along the Mountain, Ancaster, Glanbrook, Dundas and Flamborough are all peeved at the school board and how it has bulldozed through public meetings to close schools, and arrogantly flipping its finger at the city, leaving politicians to somehow find the money to save valuable green space from developers’ shovels. The public board is also engaged in an elementary school review that will impact neighbourhoods across the city again.
Some observers say this fall’s municipal election will see more of a significant change at the public school board rather than at council. At least four new trustees will be elected to the board, and possibly more. Tim Simmons, a Ward 3 trustee, is one of what will be many people trying to become the Ward 3 councillor, a tough battle since he was part of the decision making process to close schools in the same ward he wants to represent.
Judith Bishop, a 25-veteran trustee, and Dundas trustee and current chair Brennan, who has represented the area since 2003 are still deciding if they want to stay on the board.
Ray Mulholland, who has been a trustee for all but two years since 1972, acknowledges the board has its work cut out for it to repair its relationships with the community.
“We need to rebuild our relationships citywide,” he told Hamilton Community News. “We know that the board cannot exist alone.”
Yet, that is exactly what the board has done over the years, operating as if nothing else matters except meeting its own agenda.