Hamilton council walks away from partnership with school board

Councillors voted unanimously against a partnership proposal with the school board for a joint high school and rec centre on the Scott Park site. Both will move ahead with projects on their own.

Council is saying 'no thank you' to a partnership with Hamilton’s public school board to build a new high school alongside a seniors’ recreation and community centre at the former Scott Park site.

But both city council and the board are hoping to discuss how the school board might use the recreation centre’s facilities during the day.

The vote at Wednesday's council meeting to abandon the proposed partnership was unanimous.

"It is disappointing for us because we’d like to have one facility together," said board chair Tim Simmons after he left the meeting, but he added the board is "very pleased" to hear they’d like to discuss a potential arrangement to open their facilities to the school board.

"We’re best friends, but we’re not going to be roommates on this one," Simmons said.

Simmons said he can’t say what the usage might look like at this point, but he said he’s heard the new facility will include a pool, reading rooms, a dance facility as well as a gymnasium.

The motion, put forward by Councillor Bernie Morelli – whose ward the facility will be located in – and Councillor Sam Merulla, came after some colleagues expressed "concerns about the partnership" when they looked into it, Morelli said. The partnership proposal passed at committee last week, but it appeared not to have the support of full council.

"Concerns always start with money," Morelli said, noting other areas of concern surround the city’s savings and independence in the recreation centre project to which they’ll be devoting $17 million, how things will operate and where ownership will lie.

Councillor Judi Partridge said she was pleased that the new motion stated the Hamilton Future Fund would only be considered as a last resort if there was a shortfall in funding from other existing reserves.

Unhappy history

Morelli added that, for some councillors, another issue is the history of the activity they’ve had with the public school board.

"I’ve had things in the past that I haven’t been happy with," Morelli said. But, "I’ve believed in this partnership," he added, noting, "It’s been a good working relationship" with the school board.

Councillor Lloyd Ferguson said the city needs control over the recreation facility in order not put citizens at risk of losing it because recreation is not a mandate of the school board.

Despite the unanimous decision, some councillors still expressed doubts about the motion.

"I guess I’m part of a group of councillors that has had good relationships with the school board," said Councillor Terry Whitehead.

Whitehead said he supported the motion because "losing on a vote for such an important service, an important facility in this particular area, outweighs the political dynamics," adding that he doesn’t want to create a divisiveness in council.

"I still don’t understand why we’re abandoning the partnership with the school board," said Councillor Chad Collins, noting he was told the partnership would result in savings of $2 to $3 million.

The Ministry of Education is providing the board $31.2 million to build a new school, but the funds are contingent on the new school being open by September 2016, which means the board must move forward immediately, Simmons said.

"It’s a timeline we have to work with," he said. "That means we have to have our shovels in the ground next summer, and we need to start preparing for that next week."

Now that the city will not be involved, the new school will not be at the former Scott Park site, he added.

Alternate location

Simmons said the school board has a backup location in mind, but he’s not able to say where that might be other than it’s within the same vicinity, between Churchill Secondary School and Westdale Secondary School.

"That will come to our standing committee at the board next Monday when we get a report from staff," he said about the backup plan.

As for the city’s timeline for the seniors’ recreation and community centre, city manager Chris Murray said they plan to stay as close to the timeline intended with the partnership as possible.

When asked by Ferguson if the facility might be ready by the Pan Am Games in July 2015, Murray replied, "If we could get it done before Pan Am, that would be spectacular, but the clock is ticking right now," he said, noting he doesn’t want to make any promises the city can’t keep.


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