Stifling community voices at the HWDSB

Stifling community voices at the HWDSB
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Where’s the community organization against school closures this time?

As public school trustees vote this month to close schools, the crowds attending the meetings can be counted by the dozen.

Regardless of one’s position on closures, this lack of community involvement is concerning. How did this happen?

The biggest reason is the decision of the school board to minimize community dissent.

A decade ago, school closures (now called “accommodation reviews” in Boardspeak) were contentious matters that brought overflow crowds to the earliest committee discussions.

As well-noted by Gord Bowes of the *Mountain News *, it seems the process was designed to prevent community mobilization. (They follow the Board consistently and have called things straight from the beginning.)

Part of preventing community opposition was stifling of school principals.

The closure process a decade ago

I sat on many school board committees as a teenager for three years starting early in 1998. During this time, the then-new HWDSB (the county and city boards were forcefully merged in ’98) embarked on a school closure review.

It was called a closure review, there was no attempt to sugarcoat or soften the reality. Communities mobilized to save their schools. They made passionate presentations and were listened to.

They turned out in large numbers for committees and Board. The local fire captain was a regular visitor – the overflow crowds sparked concerns about safety. The progress was long, arduous, and messy. Most importantly, it was transparent, thorough, and fully democratic – all were given the opportunity to present their case to the Board.

Eventually, in April 2001, Scott Park was closed.

The Principal as community champion

The days of the principal as a community champion within the HWDSB seem to be in the past.

A decade ago, community opposition organize in their community schools and the Board enabled this.

Without becoming political, principals assisted the community to understand Board processes, ensured they were informed about process developments , and supported community empowerment.

Many of the most respected names in the still-young history of the HWDSB earned their reputations as community champions during this closure process.

In some cases, similar to the legal profession, principals were the primary advocates for their schools and community, especially for marginalized communities.

It was a different school board these short few years ago – it was more mature. This time, the Board decreed there would be no dissent.

The Principal as Board representative

This time our principals have been silent, they’ve become the Board’s representatives to the community.  It serves the Board’s interests short-term, but in the long-term will accelerate the increasing disconnect between the Board’s administrators and the communities they serve.

It diminishes the role of principal within the community to little more than an administrator – no longer a professional leader who helps bind the community together.

I recently attended a gathering of community workers. Having an interest in the education system, I asked around the room for opinions of the current crop of principals across the system. I heard repeatedly that principals are less involved with community agencies, instead having more time devoted to Board activities.

It’s unscientific questioning and doesn’t necessary mean the impression is true. What matters is the growing perception of a public school board aloft from the challenges of the community.

With the previous rush to abandon downtown in favour of a new headquarters with easy highway access (“Frankly, I want to pack my bags and go to our new building” – Brennan),  decisions to close inner-city schools and create megaschools that kids bus to instead of community schools, and decreasing transparency; it’s no surprise this perception is taking hold.

The challenge for the system is to reverse this momentum and regain public trust.

The decision to silence principals doesn’t inspire much confidence. The saddest part?

They allowed themselves to be silenced.