PARRY SOUND - By all indications, no one left Monday night’s school board information session happy.?Not the board executives, who left to a jeering crowd, and certainly not the parents, who are planning a trip to the next Near North District School Board meeting to continue their protest. The session, hosted by the director of education Geof Botting and chair of the board Kathy Hewitt, was held to speak to the public regarding the board’s September decision to move Grade 7 and 8 students from three area elementary schools into Parry Sound High School as of September 2013.
Geof Botting, director of the Near North District School Board, and Kathy Hewitt, chair of the board, respond to questions during Tuesday night’s information session held in Parry Sound High School’s cafeteria.
Roland Cillers/North Star
200 community members
More than 200 community members attended the meeting to ask questions and air their grievances. ?At several points, the meeting became heated with yelling from the attendees and the organizers asking people to be respectful. ?Botting started off the meeting by calling himself the “bad guy” who recommended the board make this change.
He defended the recommendation by saying he believes that it is both a financially responsible move and one that will offer enhanced programming for the Grade 7 and 8 students.?
“We know that adolescence can be a difficult period. Our enrollment is declining. We can’t maintain the system. We have to have a capital plan going forward. We have $150 million of repairs to do on our schools, and we just can’t keep going on the way we’re going on. We have to make really, really difficult decisions,” said Botting.
He pointed out the financial challenges the board is facing and said they currently have around 700,000 square feet of excess space that needs to be maintained, heated and powered. ?
Botting appealed to the business owners in the audience explaining the inefficiency that currently exists in the board in terms of how they make use of current space.?
“If your business was operating at 60 per cent capacity you would have to do something about it,” Botting said. “Sadly, our business is kids, if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t recommend it. I don’t get paid extra for this. Our school board has found itself in a position where about 40 per cent of our space is excess right now. We have to shut some schools. There’s absolutely no choice in the matter.” ?
He said school closures are in the near future for the Parry Sound district and the current projection is for school enrollment to drop even further in the coming years.
Other financial challenges facing the board include a requirement that all buildings be made fully wheelchair accessible by 2025.
Botting said many of the issues facing the board today should have been addressed a long time ago. ?
“I don’t want to take a shot at trustees, but I’m going to. If decisions had been made many, many years ago we probably wouldn’t be where we are right now. We can’t have schools open that are 25 per cent full. For people who don’t have kids in school it’s not fair to them. We have to have a sustainable legacy to go forward,” said Botting. ?
When the meeting was opened up for parents, questions ranged from practical inquiries about how the new school would operate to criticisms of the board’s procedures that led to the decision. ?Since the decision was made, many in the community have questioned why no one in Parry Sound was consulted. Some referred to the way it was voted on prior to holding an information session as putting the cart before the horse.?
Bill Spinney received a loud applause when he said the board’s process has displayed a failure in good governance.
“The first rule of governance of any board is to have input from the constituents you portend to serve - you have failed that test miserably,” said Spinney. “Do the right thing, rescind the resolution that was passed on September 25, and call an [Accommodation Review Committee] right now and decide this with community input.”?
Botting said during his opening speech that the consultation could have been better, but they felt the model used in North Bay would have been acceptable in Parry Sound as well. ?Many parents criticized the fact that logistical aspects, such as where in the school the new students would be located and how their lunch would be handled, had not yet been addressed.
Principal Andy Gagne said they would be working with parents in the near future to establish those kinds of plans. ?
Other parents wanted to know how staff planned to protect the younger students from the illegal drug culture they believed was prevalent at Parry Sound High School. ?
Greg Mason, a parent, asked the board if there was an opportunity to revisit the decision and allow a new process that included parents.?
“What you’ve done is unprofessional. What you’ve recommended is unprofessional for someone in your profession. Ms. Hewitt, as the chair and elected official, the process you’ve allowed to happen is unprofessional. I can’t ask for your resignation, or perhaps I can, but I might recommend it,” Mason said. ?
At around 7:35 p.m. the roughly hour-long meeting was called to a close. Several parents were lined up to continue asking questions, but officials stuck to the original plan of making it a one-hour session. ?
As Botting and Hewitt walked out of the room, the crowd jeered, with one man yelling, “That’s a seven-year-old’s trick. Just turning your head and walking away.”?
The next school board meeting is being held on October 23. Many local parents have indicated an intention to travel to North Bay to attend.