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HWDSB has a culture of fear and mistrust, survey results say

It wasn’t easy to hear. Phrases included a “culture of fear,” “helpful but not enough” and “critical and mounting issues.” But the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says it’s still happy to get the results of a survey aimed at helping change its culture.

Board will use honest, unfiltered feedback to create a new vision

Chair Todd White says it was tough to read some of the blunt feedback from the community, but the board will use it to create a new vision. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It wasn't easy to hear. Phrases included a "culture of fear," "helpful but not enough" and "critical and mounting issues."

But the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says it's still happy to get the results of a survey aimed at helping change its culture.

As part of a new Reimagine HWDSB "visioning" exercise, a consultant gathered 739 survey results and held 18 focus groups and four community forums to ask what people thought of the school board.

Some of the results were harsh.

A report to trustees on Wednesday says some respondents — which included parents, students and teachers — described a "culture of fear." There is also an "oversaturation of mission/vision corporate speak," and that there are "jaded views and a real distrust" of the board.

Board chair Todd White described some of the results as "difficult to read because we opened ourselves to very open and honest feedback."

"But it's important we hear what the public truly thinks if we want to make real changes to our organization," he said in a release.

HWDSB has had a tough last few years when it comes to public relations.

In the last four years, the board voted to close eight high schools, citing pressures from declining enrolment. That includes both high schools for students with special needs, as well as Parkside in the heart of Dundas and Sir John A. Macdonald. The latter is Hamilton's only downtown high school and has a large population of immigrant and at-risk students.

The board also voted to close several elementary schools. Nearly every closure brought community protests. There were also some public battles with the city. 

Now, the board aims to improve that. After the October municipal election, half of the board is new trustees. White became the new chair. The board has also just hired a new director of education, and several other new senior administrative staff.

The eight-month Reimagine HWDSB process will form a new outlook, White said. 

"We don't want any type of filtered or sugar-coated responses," he said before the launch in May. "We want the raw feedback.

"The whole concept is open and honest feedback to help set the course."

The results show that while the board's overall mission of achievement, engagement and equity sounds good, "there are critical and mounting issues that will need to be addressed by the newly appointed incoming director of education." Most focus on culture and communication. 

This fall, the board will use the feedback to create a new vision. In early 2016, the board will launch the new vision through community events and social media.

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