A group of Hamiltonians critical of the way schools are closed in Hamilton has decided to develop a body armed with  independent knowledge to counter the various provincial formulae that are currently used to justify school closures. Hamilton activist Gary Santucci first became a vocal critic of the school closure process during the controversial demolition of the historic Sanford Avenue School. Santucci charged that the process was manipulated to prevent any meaningful discussion of alternatives to demolition, including options like adaptive re-use. He recognizes that part of the problem with activists like himself is one of credibility. “We are portrayed as people who are just ranting without any specialized expertise,” Santucci said in an interview with the Bay Observer.”Our plan now is to form a group that will gather hard information and challenge some of these assumptions based on knowledge,” he added. Helping to form the panel will be Paul Beattie, the retired principal of Parkview Secondary School, which had been the home to a much admired special education program aimed at at-risk teens and had garnered significant praise for its ability to keep youth in school who otherwise would have been dropouts. Beattie’s staunch championing of the special needs education program put him at odds with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board administration who had decided to shut down the Parkview program and bus the affected students to a merged program at Mountain Secondary. Beattie initially was tapped to be the principal of the new program but the popular educator found himself the odd man out last year allegedly because of his continued opposition of the Parkview closure and what he saw as the watering down of the program. Shortly after the school closed, Beattie announced his retirement.

Santucci and Beattie will meet later this month with like minded community members to map out a strategy. “We are going to reach out for expertise in demographics, transportation, economic impacts and the like so we can provide trustees with an alternate view when they are making closure decisions. We have a staff view…now we will have a community view as well.”  He says there is a sense that school trustees generally are too deferential to staff because of staff’s perceived expertise.

The group intends to take a hard look at the software program provided to the Education Ministry that is used to evaluate whether it is more cost effective to replace a school or to repair it. “The software is too skewed towards demolition,” Santucci said. “if there is a crack in the wall the software recommends replacing the wall rather than repairing the crack. If we applied that logic to all our homes, we would demolish the whole city.” He noted that $5 Million was recently spent putting a new heating system and new windows in Delta Collegiate only to see the school slated for closure. He noted that this board declared with certainty a decade ago that Scott Park was not a viable school location and that Sir John A MacDonald and Delta were the facilities to be kept open; only to come to the opposite conclusion in the past year—that a new school should be built at Scott Park and that Delta and Sir John A should be closed.

Santucci says there are serious transportation issues that need to be addressed with the current round of closures. “With the changes we made on the mountain, we have streamed a huge number of students onto the HSR bus system, with the result that people trying to get to work sometimes see a packed bus pass them by.” He says the closures of the lower city high schools will put at least 1200 extra students on the already crowded B-Line and King bus systems in rush hour. “It’s a form of downloading,” Santucci said, “and it shows the flaws in current planning. That is why community impacts need to be taken more fully into account when closures and mergers are being planned.”

The committee hopes to form a working relationship with some of the 7 new trustees that were elected to the board last October, some of whom campaigned on reforms to the whole school accommodation issue. Santucci says he and his supporters have not been successful in gaining the ear of Hamilton’s Cabinet Minister Ted McMeekin, hence the need for a wider, more credible group. “We are tired of being told our opinions are not valid because we are not part of the education community,” said Santucci.

The announcement of the formation of a citizen panel came at the end of a tumultuous year  for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. The year was rocked with the Scott Park and Parkview controversies as well as the mountain secondary closure issues. 7 Trustees, some of whom had been on the board for decades opted not to seek re-election. For his part Director of Education John Malloy,  announced he was leaving the Board shortly after the October Elections  to become an  assistant deputy minister in the Ontario Education Ministry. Applications for that job had been closed off in July. The posting represents a significant decrease in salary with the top pay for the position $167,000 per annum—compared to the $247,000 Malloy earned with the board in 2013.

John Best has had a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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