In a five to three vote, (one absent) the Near North District School Board has elected to close Widdifield Secondary school, leaving Chippewa and West Ferris open for the time being. Board chair Dave Thompson, and Trustees Michelina Beam and Alan Bottomley voted against the motion, preferring the construction of one super school.
This is the 12th school closing Thompson has voted on in the past 12 years.
"None of us want to close a school, but at the end of the day you look at the numbers and we have to make a decision," said Thompson. "We had some great frank conversations so democracy worked."
Trustee Harold Fry says he went back and forth between the options of leaving two schools open or building one school to accommodate all the students. He told the board 'looking five,10 and 15 years down the road,' he predicted they would eventually wind up with a one school scenario. In the end, he said he listened to the public, voting in favour of what he called 'a short-term solution.'
"My decision was based on a great deal of input over many months of feedback, and ultimately the decision really boiled down to the facility options that were presented for the site selection," said Fry. "I think at the end of the day we will eventually become a one high school board just based on the sheer numbers, but for now a 3 to 2 makes the most sense. In terms of the selection of site, I think the Chippewa site gives us the most options going forward and I'm confident the programming piece that will be provided by the senior administration will be as good as they can possibly offer given two schools."
A small group of parents was on hand to hear the boards decision.
Donna McTiernan has one child attending high school at Chippewa and another who just started at Widdifield. She's disappointed in the board's decision, saying she felt all along that reducing the three schools to one school was the best option based on funding. She blames the Ministry of Education.
"The Ministry was talking all this time that as long as you closed a number of schools, the money would be there to rebuild, but they kept changing the rules," said McTiernan. " We start shoving three schools into two, all we're doing is bursting two schools that aren't equipped to handle all those kids. As a parent from Chippewa, they have over 1,000 students this year alone and they can't handle it. My concerns are what the timeline will be, and if we're going to be able to offer our kids what they need in these smaller buildings by putting more kids in each of them."
Supportive of the board's decision, Andrea Cardinal who also has a child attending Chippewa, says she was initially in favour of blending three schools into one.
"But I had some serious reservations about the lack of administration that would be put in place to support that decision. So I was for a new school, I was for the expansion of programs and I was definitely for a 21st-century learning opportunity, but I know how much our administration is struggling in the schools now to be able to work with the students in a proactive rather than a reactive way. And I thought if we have that many more children under one roof, and we don't have the administration to support that, then it's going to be a detriment to them."
Janet Hilliard, has three children attending Widdifield, which is set to close. In her opinion, there was no other option.
"I'm very happy they chose to go with the three to two option. I think that's the only workable solution that suits all the stakeholders right now. If eventually they have to go to 3 to 1, we'll look at that at that point, but right now the public has spoken."
It will now be left to the Director of Education to work out the details, including the timeline and report back to the board.
"We have faith in our Director and her team in bringing forward some really unique programming. Thinking outside the box really is going to describe this process. We're looking at consolidating schools, we're not closing programs or anything like that. I think we're going to be enhancing programs," said Thompson. "From the feedback I've heard from some teachers, they're very excited about moving forward. I think it's going to change the dynamics of education in North Bay."
As for the future, Thompson looks to current enrollment numbers.
"We know we have 681 grade three's and that's the graduating class in nine years, so we'll see if that's enough to keep a school open," said the board chair.
"We're the end result of the community. If there's no youth in the community, then there's no purpose for schools. We don't attract people, it's the city that attracts them, the jobs. The end result comes from the city."
Thompson wants to move forward and patch the fragmented relationship with the mayor and council that arose during the process. He says the biggest issue with the city is respect and understanding the business of education and students. "They don't understand that."
"When Mayor McDonald spoke a couple times, he certainly riled some of the trustees, but the trustees want to get beyond that. We think there's some great partnership opportunities particularly in West Ferris and we want to move forward with that and take the high road."
The board will be sending an invitation to city council this week, asking the two sides to meet to discuss the current trend of school closures.