Near North District School Board chair Kathy Hewitt tried something new this week – she said it as she sees it.
In a conversation with the North Star, Hewitt presented the lay of the land; her vision of Parry Sound schools a year or two from now.
It’s a shocking vision of one elementary school in Parry Sound, one high school that serves students from Grades 7 to 12, and at least one less outlying school.
She also hinted at provincial pressure to do something, fast, and pointed out that the Grade 7/8 shift into the high school might even have been a Ministry of Education suggestion.
The board finds itself in a tough position – that of the messenger – as the cash-strapped province offers no solution for dropping enrolment, and no more money for new buildings. So far, Hewitt, director Geof Botting, and fellow trustees and staff have been poor messengers.
Plans were obscure. Explanations were lacking. There was an appearance of secrecy – of plans hatched behind closed doors.
Even on Monday, when a group of parent council chairs representing the affected Parry Sound schools met and invited trustees to join them, only local trustee Jim Beatty showed up, and they could only speculate about the board’s intentions.
But something changed. Perhaps it started last week, when Botting responded to a cascade of anger from Parry Sound by painting a bleak picture of the future and admitted past board mistakes, and that children are already in decaying buildings they shouldn’t really be in.
But at that meeting, plans for Parry Sound remained confusing as trustees seemed to answer the same questions with different answers.
On Tuesday, Hewitt finally seemed to accept her role as messenger when the North Star called, and explained what she and top administrators have been discussing all along – plans that even our rural trustees on the board representing Parry Sound, Almaguin and First Nations seemed unaware of, or at least unsure of.
The news is not good. But at least the cat is out of the bag.
Residents in Parry Sound should have been part of this process long ago. There needs to be more community consultation every step of the way. And the province needs to face its share of the pressure for the tough decisions ahead. So far, communication has been botched. Consultation nixed. Inclusion non-existent. Parry Sounders, in their reaction, taught the board a lesson about that.
But now we start over, with an honest and thorough explanation from the chair – mixed with a few questions she admits she doesn’t know the answer to, such as how many schools around Parry Sound will be affected? Exactly how many buildings will close? When will it end?
There’s plenty of reason for anger here. There are plenty of reasons to cry foul. But now we know. And whatever the outcome, the refreshing and long-overdue frank talk means we can finally start speaking the same language and can work together to shape the future of education, and of communities, in West Parry Sound.