Questions, questions … schools debate will reconvene
Halton public board trustees grill staff about closures
Halton public school board director Stuart Miller already knew he was in for a long night, but he appeared taken aback when the first question by a trustee didn’t pertain to any recommendation in his 282-page report to the board on declining enrolment and student program equity issues.
From there, it was almost four hours of questions from trustees.
But it wasn’t long enough. So they’ll get back at it next week.
Trustees voted 7-4 to end Wednesday’s meeting just after 11:30 p.m. and reconvene May 24 to pick up where they left off in the ongoing discussion about Burlington’s high school accommodation review.
Following six public delegations about the director’s recommended closure of Lester B. Pearson and Robert Bateman high schools — for 2018 and 2019 respectively — Miller waited for the expected barrage of questions from the 11 trustees.
Burlington trustee Amy Collard was first up and asked him if board staff had considered partnering programs between Bateman and Nelson to keep the former open.
The director is recommends Nelson to accept Bateman’s students, including its large contingents of special-needs and skilledtrades program students.
“We’ve heard from about 60 delegations and a number have asked that we look at partnering Bateman and Nelson and expanding (school) boundaries for Bateman. Some of these ideas are not included in your report …,” Collard said.
Miller hesitated in responding and, seemingly exasperated, told Collard he wanted to focus first on the recommendations in the report.
“We are always open to alternatives and possibilities.”
That didn’t sit well with Collard, who then asked how trustees can make “an informed decision” if they can get specific information from staff.
“The two-campus idea (of Nelson and Bateman). Could we look into it? Yes, but we haven’t had a debate on our recommendation,” Miller countered.
Facilities superintendent Gerry Cullen jumped in and said he’s heard many delegations ask how one or both high schools can be saved but observed that partnering doesn’t address the overriding issue of too many empty seats places in Burlington’s high schools, particularly south of the QEW.
Trustees continued ask about the cost and effort to move specialized equipment from Bateman to Nelson, for programs like the culinary arts and skilled trades, and whether there will be the space at Nelson to accommodate new infrastructure for two wood shops, a commercial kitchen and autobody repair and painting.
“These things are very transferable but we’d need the space,” said David Boag, the board’s associate education director.
Milton trustee Donna Danielli said they’ve heard “a great deal” of concern from parents about how students at Bateman with learning and developmental disabilities would be transitioned to Nelson.
School board staff have “much experience in transitioning,” education superintendent Mark Zonneveld responded.
“At Nelson, we’ll do it even better again. Each time we are learning.”
The Bateman-to-Nelson transition, however, could take longer than past efforts, noting it must be “very individualized,” Zonneveld added.
Oakville trustee Joanna Oliver asked if it was feasible to move Bateman’s specialty programs to Aldershot high school, which is at the other end of the city.
Superintendent Scott Podrebarac said that would result in a significant increase in the number of students bused and the time they spend on a bus.
Milton trustee Kim Graves asked if closing schools is required in order to receive provincial funding from the Ontario government to build new schools.
“No,” said Domenico Renzella, the board’s senior manager of planning. “New schools are funded based on need in a specific area.”