Lessons learned from school closure

By Penny Coles, Niagara Advance

School board trustees are set to rule on changes to policies related to accommodation reviews and school closures, based on difficult lessons learned when they voted to close Niagara-on-the-Lake's only high school.

If Tuesday's scheduled vote goes as expected, trustees from the previous term will rule on policies for reviews that are expected to be dealt with by the new board.

Lynn Campbell, trustee on the board for the previous four-year-term, is a member of the governance committee which has been studying a number of policy changes since early this year.

Most of them are "minor house-keeping" issues intended to simplify procedures for the new board of trustees, she says.

One of the suggested changes would prevent the board from approving conditional school closures, such as the motion that said NDSS would close after the 2010 school year if enrolment hadn't reached 350 students by October, 2009.

The amendment would mean that a board decision to close a school "will provide certainty and finality in its decision-making for the sake of the community and will not adopt conditional motions that prolong the uncertainty of the school's future or outcome," the governance report says.

The new rule would give complete responsibility for closure to the board.

"We do not want to increase anxiety or build false hope or divide communities by putting a cloud of uncertainty over a school," the report says. "When we do that, trustees may be shifting the responsibility of closing a school to a community by creating a condition they may fail to meet."

Campbell approves of the policy change for the new board that takes over in December.

"I certainly agree that conditional motions for school closures are not a good idea after what happened in NOTL, because there was a lot of hope and a lot of money and effort put into turning the school around in one short year in an attempt to get the enrolment up," says Campbell.

"But it was not enough time, and it left the people of NOTL understandably angry and disillusioned."

It takes a while for new trustees to acclimatize themselves to the running of the board, she says.

"We're not trying to slip something through, we're just trying to make it easier for new trustees."

It makes sense, she adds, that seasoned trustees use their experience, in this case gained through the process of closing NDSS, to improve the procedure for all concerned.

Jonathan Fast, the only NOTL resident to be elected to the new term of trustees, has been attending board meetings for the last two years. While he understands trustees worked hard on governance issues to improve policies regarding school closures, he feels the new trustees should be the ones to make decisions that will affect their term, he says.

"They've been researching these issues since last January, they've put a lot of work into it, and that's great. But close to 50 per cent of the trustees will not be returning," says Fast.

"I think the report and recommendations should be handed over to the new trustees for review."

The other suggestion that arose from the closure of NDSS relates to public delegations.

The governance committee is recommending all delegations about a school closure be made at meetings prior to the final vote-the public will not be permitted to address the board on a school closure being voted on at the same meeting.

The governance report says that NDSS delegations from families with young children were scheduled to speak late at night, between 8 and 10 p.m. so that the number of delegates speaking at the final meeting had to be restricted. Those who wanted to stay until the discussion and vote were finished were sometimes forced to stay until 10 or 11 p.m..

Campbell says the policy change would bring fairness to all those who want to speak to a school closure, and would also give trustees time to ask questions and deliberate the information they're given, rather than having new information presented the same night they are required to vote.

Trustees were to vote on the governance changes at their last meeting, but not enough trustees attended. The discussion and vote is now expected to take place Tuesday, Nov. 23, the last board meeting of the current term.

Paolo Miele, a trustee candidate who failed to win a seat on the board, plans to continue as an education watchdog for NOTL parents. He hoped to make a delegation regarding some of the proposed changes expected to be discussed Tuesday, but was told he could resubmit his request to speak to trustees in January - once again a "slap in the face" for local parents, he says.

The new board meets for the first time Dec 14.

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