NDSS report causes stir
A long-anticipated document prepared by those dedicated to saving the town's only high school contained a few surprises when released at a special council meeting Monday, dropping a bombshell in normally subdued quarters.
The 34-page report released by the NDSS strategy committee chaired by town councillor Gary Zalepa Jr. included the expected-a recap of all the many good reasons for keeping the school open and a review of the actions that have led to a school board decision to close it.
It was the recommendations to the province to save the school by looking to the future that caused a stir, with the option of a campus concept with one new building to educate all 750 Niagara-on-the-Lake high school students, including the Catholics who now go to Holy Cross in St. Catharines and the Mennonites who choose Eden High School.
The town hall was filled with concerned residents eager to hear how council would vote on the recommendation for what many were calling a "mega school."
The report details the events that have led to the board's decision to close the school: the lack of facility renewal for more than a decade; the hidden cost of "free transportation;' funding mismanagement; alternate programs, including Eden; the board's failure to address a study that describes NOTL's growing population; the many new programs developed by the community and the board's failure to partner with the town to seek solutions.
The brief states a new campus-type school could accommodate all students by appealing to their needs, including having a chapel on site and programs geared to offer a wide variety of courses.
The controversial document elicited many different reactions, with the audience clearly and audibly divided.
Zalepa defended the strategy, saying a lot of work went into preparing the document and to have the recommendations thrown out would be a waste of time.
"The committee is focused on keeping a high school in our community. Simply, that's it... We need to move quickly and with everything we've heard tonight, I think we can accommodate and facilitate those needs to make the document stronger," he said.
Zalepa said the idea of creating a campus school is to fix the problems that currently drive students away from NDSS site. He said a new school of an appropriate size would attract students, but when the facility is left to slowly deteriorate, as it has been for the last decade, students will seek education in other places.
"We have almost 800 kids eligible for high school in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I'm not saying the brief suggests forcing anybody to go anywhere. We think we should at least have the facility to attract students as it's proven when a facility is poor, it pushes them away."
Bill Morrison, speaking on behalf of the Friends of NDSS, said changes are inevitable and necessary with any type of evolution.
"In today's world, it is imperative that educators move forward and embrace new concepts and promote cost efficiencies, shared resources and the greening of our lifestyles," he said.
"In all aspects, the DSBN is failing our community. This group of students is vital to the everyday fabric that makes up Niagara-on-the-Lake."
While representatives from several local organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, the NOTL Kinsmen and the Virgil Business Association, voted in favour of doing whatever it takes to keep a high school in town, some parents whose children would be affected by the new school spoke against the type of environment that would be created.
Christine Lett is a mother of three students at Virgil Public School and is of Mennonite background.
She said she would not like to see her children being a part of a proposed mega school as it goes against what many people in the community want.
She is also concerned discussions about locating the new elementary school-for public school students from Col. John Butler and Virgil-will delay a new school.
"Over the last two years, this council has shown it cares only about the future of NDSS and has ignored elementary students, parents and the community. Now is the time to show that you are listening and willing to act on behalf of all people because we will not be ignored in the fall."
Niagara Catholic District School Board director of education John Crocco said in a letter to Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs that he is disappointed with the brief.
"It is disconcerting that public officials would make such recommendations for an elected board of trustees which is not within the jurisdiction of municipal council," said Crocco.
"We do not endorse this report given its reference to the Niagara Catholic District School Board, the legal rights of Catholic parents and their children, the governance of the [board] and specifically our board's mission and mandate to provide a Catholic education to our students."
Kevin Ruddle, chairman of the Eden High School Advisory Board, voiced his concerns to councillors, mentioning how Eden High School has been the brunt of many attacks founded on incorrect information.
This information carried over into the brief that would have been sent to Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky, he said.
"It is time for us to clear the air and move forward to knit this community back together," Ruddle said.
"This can only be achieved by understanding the facts and agreeing to conduct ourselves with integrity and acceptance, rather than the back-biting comments of the very vocal minority in this community."
But the idea of the campus concept and attracting students from other schools is only an attempt to put some options on the table and get a discussion going, says Zalepa. But unfortunately the focus of the meeting shifted away from the possibility of everyone working together and offering choices for all students and instead became an emotional debate about what was just an option, he said.
"We can't let emotion stop us from having these conversations that may find the solution," said Zalepa.
At the end of the two and a half hour special council meeting, councillors voted on refining the brief from comments heard throughout the evening and seeking further public input before sending the document back to the town for approval and then to the education minister for assistance with the town's battle to keep its high school.
For more information or to view the document, visit www.notl.org.