The provincial review of the decision to close Parkside Secondary School in Dundas is marked with “high feelings” and anger from some members of the community, says the facilitator appointed to study the decision.
Margaret Wilson said after a public meeting Monday night that when she studies school closures, the anger is often evident. The decision to close Parkside is no different.
“There are high feelings, always,” said Wilson, who has conducted six similar reviews around the province.
“It's in the language people use about the process. It's in their body language.”
As facilitator, “I try to listen to people,” Wilson said. “It's not a matter of if I agree with everything I'm hearing, but I respect their right to speak out.”
About 75 people attended the meeting in the Parkside gymnasium. Wilson has already met with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees and members of the west accommodation review committee (ARC).
She will now meet with board administration and compile a report, which will take “several weeks,” she said. Her job is to determine whether the board followed its own process in its decision to close Parkside.
Trustees voted in May to close the 522-student school and Highland Secondary and consolidate students in a new high school on the Highland property. The construction of the new school would depend on Ministry of Education funding.
A group of Parkside supporters appealed to the ministry in June. The board filed an official response. Wilson was appointed Sept. 10.
Wilson has a long history in education. She is a former registrar and chief executive officer of the Ontario College of Teachers, and former CEO of the Ontario Teachers Federation, said ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler.
She has been an expert witness in grievance arbitrations and served on a ministry task force for effective schools.
The facilitation process is never easy, Wilson said. She has studied school closure decisions in areas where the school is the only remaining community focal point.
“I've looked at areas where there was no church anymore. There was no store. There was only the school,” she said.
Wilson saw all four schools in the west ARC process — Westdale Secondary, Ancaster High, Parkside and Highland.
“I visited them while they were in session so I got a feel for them,” she said.
She heard 10 presentations on Monday night, including one from Tim Leslie, a father of four who was part of a team who drew up an alternate plan.
Since filing the appeal, his group feels even more strongly that the decision to close Parkside was a foregone conclusion when the ARC process started, he said.
“We're more convinced than ever.”
According to board data from earlier this year, Parkside is built for 777 students, has 522 and is projected to have 490 in 2015.
Highland was built for 924 students, has 773 and is projected to drop to 612 by 2015.
The ARC, which met for a year and held a series of public meetings, recommended that no school be built for fewer than 1,000 students.
The decision was part of a wide-ranging accommodation review that resulted in the decision to close eight high schools and build three new ones.
In that kind of process, the board is bound to have a review, which the board is happy to co-operate with, chair Tim Simmons said, when the decision to appoint a facilitator was announced."We look forward to co-operating with the facilitator and assisting them in any way we can so they can complete their work in a reasonable amount of time."