Only the most dedicated person would want to be a school trustee. For less than $1000 a month ($500 more if you are the chair), you get a meeting schedule that can be as onerous as a city councillor’s. In addition, because one of the tasks of a trustee is the almost perpetual necessity to try to balance school enrolments with shifting demographics—you are constantly dealing with school closures. School closures are the third rail of school board politics. The only way a school closure ever receives any public support is if the old school is being replaced by a new school, which often is not possible. As testament to the dedication of the typical trustee is the fact that many trustees at the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and across the province continued to seek to serve on school boards even after Premier Mike Harris slashed their salaries. Against that background of selfless service we have another school board vs city drama that recently played out in Hamilton—this time over the closure of Parkview School. Parkview students suffer from learning and behavior difficulties. A large number of them and their parents argues that it would have been be detrimental to the students if they were forced to integrate with the regular school population.
The board argued that what’s needed is “inclusion”—that students will actually do better in a higher-achieving environment. And further that the Parkview students will get the supports they need to make the transition. We’re not in a position to definitively judge which approach is the right one, but a big part of the board’s optimism relies on the regular high school students being encouraged to be welcoming and generous to the newcomers. Anyone who has gone to a high school, especially if you fell outside of whatever that ephemeral set of characteristics and appearances that adds up to popularity, will recall how intimidating an environment a high school can be. Hormone-infused kids are not always nice to each other, and the ones who usually get the short end of the stick are those who are most “different.”
Changing human nature will likely prove to be a bigger challenge than the Board thinks it will be. With the decision to defer the scrapping of the program until the current Parkview students have exited the system, the board has bought some time to figure out its next move. But as the Parkview debate recedes there is another reality at play in Hamilton, and that is a lack of trust between city council and the HWDSB. It was most on display last fall when council resoundingly rejected a partnership with the Board to build a high school and community centre at Scott Park. Some observers believe the mistrust stemmed from the Board’s decision to move its headquarters to the mountain instead of remaining downtown. There also is a feeling that community access to the Dr Davy school-community centre joint venture did not materialize as promised. Or maybe it goes back to the Board’s insistence a decade ago that there was absolutely no future for a school at the Scott Park site, only to reverse its position in the past year. Whatever the causes, the mistrust is palpable and it needs to be addressed for the benefit of taxpayers who support both bodies.