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COMMUNITY COLUMNIST: A loss of faith leaves Hamilton schools empty

By Father Geoffrey Korz, special to the News

Many Hamiltonians are familiar with the closed-door approach of the Hamilton-Wentworth public school board, seen vividly during the last year of school closure meetings.
Yet it was still a shock several months ago when Dundas trustee Jessica Brennan declared to some faith community reps that “getting direct advice to trustees (is) not important.”
Brennan and then-chair Tim Simmons called the meeting to calm concerns about the board’s decree to suddenly shut down its Interfaith Advisory Committee, designed to hear from the leaders of local faith groups.
At the meeting, Simmons told one faith leader, “This organization isn’t here for your community.”
Funny — I always thought that was the whole idea of public schools: being open to everyone.
When the board created the Interfaith Advisory Committee nearly a decade ago, the move was a step toward building bridges with faith groups. The committee had many successes, including the creation of a religious holidays calendar for staff and a policy on student faith clubs.
The volunteer group gave no-cost feedback to the school system on issues impacting tens of thousands of students who come from various faith and cultural communities.
This committee was also a much-needed olive branch on behalf of public education to people of faith, who increasingly saw the Hamilton-Wentworth school board as weak on academics and indifferent to the wishes of parents. Surely, such co-operation could help slow the ongoing loss of students leaving the public system for Catholic and independent schools.
Folks disaffected with public schools aren’t hard to find. Every small school in the city continues to face the risk of the board’s wrecking ball and trustees’ giddy pursuit of real estate revenues from the sale of school properties.  Parents know firsthand the indifference our public school board can dole out.
When a school system loses the respect of its community, it brings on its own demise. Families vote with their feet.
Too often, career politicians are too self-absorbed to seize the opportunity to resolve the problems.
When the board voted to scrap the successful Interfaith Advisory Committee, I suggested to Simmons that he might at least offer a public apology to faith groups. Perhaps it might even keep a few families in the public schools.
Simmons just laughed.
Perhaps trustee (now school board chair) Jessica Brennan summed it up best when she spoke with faith reps at that same meeting last fall.
“Do we need (your) input going directly to trustees? No,” she told us.
In most places, if a person directed such a comment to a racial group, to Native Canadians or toward faith groups, they would be called a bigot.
But in Hamilton, they’re made chair of the public school board.
Father Geoffrey Korz is an Orthodox priest in Hamilton and General Secretary of the Pan-Orthodox Association of Greater Hamilton. He served as a public school trustee from 1988-1997.

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