Mayors criticize school board
Anger mounts, councils add their voices to anger over Grade 7/8 shift
Beacon Star file photo
Parry Sound Mayor Jamie McGarvey
Beacon Star file photo
Carling Township Mayor Gord Harrison
PARRY SOUND – Municipal governments are stepping into the fray.
Carling Township Mayor Gord Harrison stood up for his turn at the microphone at a meeting Near North District School board chair Kathy Hewitt and director Geof Botting hosted in order to give the public a chance to express their opinions on the unexpected decision to move Grade 7/8 students into the high school next fall.
He was still standing in line at the microphone when the meeting was suddenly shut down after an hour. He then asked for a chance to speak at the school board’s regular meeting next week.
“I made a request to make a deputation,” said Harrison. “I was told according to … the bylaws the board was denying my request, and in fact every request. We’re getting a legal opinion.”
Harrison and township staff then drafted a resolution requesting the Minister of Education Laurel Broten intervene and send ministry staff to review and report on how the school board conducts its meetings and financial business.
“The thing that is bothering us is the process, the lack of consultation,” Harrison said. “For us in the municipal world, this is foreign, completely foreign, to have no public input.”
Municipalities, he pointed out, require public input for decisions ranging from placing sewer lines to overall planning.
“It just seems unacceptable to make a decision of this magnitude with no public consultation,” Harrison said.
The Carling Township resolution also asks for the resignation of board chair Kathy Hewitt, who didn’t include the decision on the agenda or consider any requests for public consultation.
“It appears to be deceptive,” he said. “That’s all squarely on the shoulders of the chair.”
As for Monday’s public forum, where Hewitt and board officials argued with the public and then shut down the meeting, “I’ve never seen such bad behaviour from elected officials,” Harrison said. “I’ve never seen anyone act that badly and that rudely without any concern for the public.”
Harrison said he understands the financial plight of the school board, which faces financial challenges as provincial funding tied to head count plummets along with student numbers, but a public process would educate the public, allow for more input and solutions, and create more community buy-in.
“It makes the decision you’re trying to make better.”
On Tuesday night, Parry Sound council members added the Carling Township resolution to their agenda.
Mayor Jamie McGarvey said council supported the resolution for the same reasons, including an odd lack of public input.
“It really had to do with a lack of communication, the way that it was presented and there was no public consultation beforehand and no plan,” said McGarvey. “There were a number of parents that said if you would have come to us and let us know the situation and you had a plan we could look at and work on it might have been more palatable, but to throw this in everyone’s face and cut off discussion so that nobody can speak. My feeling is that if we (as a council) were to do that, we would be raked right over the coals. (Council) almost goes to the extreme the other way to get public consultation on things so that the public is aware. Communication is so important; you do the best you can with the tools that you have to get that communication out there. This wasn’t even attempted.”
McGarvey said although the West Parry Sound District is a smaller area, compared to North Bay, the board’s decision is having a big impact on the people here – and they’re not happy.
“I think what’s happened here is it’s affecting our ratepayers in a huge way. (The school board is) not listening, they’re not consulting with our ratepayer and they’re not providing them with the plan that’s needed to show them how this can work, if that’s the case,” McGarvey said. “I think Carling worded the resolution fairly strongly; I think to try and get their attention. I think council supported it on that basis to say, hey look, you can’t just come in and bulldoze this through on us. There are a lot of people really, really angry about this.”
Although council passed the resolution with unanimous support, Coun. Dave Williams suggested calling for the chair’s resignation went a step too far.
“Asking someone to resign rarely works and generally nothing good comes of it – even if Ms. Hewitt was removed from her seat as chair, that wouldn’t reverse the decision,” said Williams Thursday morning. “Ms. Hewitt obviously had the support of the majority of the board, which means she isn’t solely to blame for this decision or the poor manner in which it was handled. Building bridges, which allow for others to admit their errors and choose to fix them, is generally more productive than widening the gap between two opposing sides. The resolution called for the ministry to investigate the situation, so it seems appropriate to wait for the results of that before moving to the next step of this disciplinary action. What will happen now, if Ms. Hewitt is removed and the decision still stands?”
The resolution was expected to appear before the Township of the Archipelago on Friday, and before other area townships over the next days and weeks.
As a group of angry parents work to organize a bus ride to North Bay for next Tuesday’s school board meeting, Mayor Harrison plans to attend as well – even though he’s not invited to speak.
“I think I’ll sit on the bus,” he said.