Barton, Delta, Highland, Sir John A., Parkview, Parkside, Mountain and Hill Park.

That’s the final list of closures recently put forward by the local Public School Board. This loss will be devastating to students, families and communities. The losses are heavily concentrated in the centre of town, in many of the poorest areas already hardest hit by poverty, under-funding and capital flight. People are incensed, from one end of the city to the other. Protesters are beginning to gather around Board headquarters at Main and Bay fairly frequently, as even it prepares to pick up roots and flee to the suburbs. Behind it all, a debate rages across communities with Neighbourhood Associations, Politicians and the press all chiming in.

The debate has been pretty intense at times, with a few pretty much calling for the heads of trustees who voted in favour. In the spirit of open debate, I’d like to address a few of these issues. Adrian Brassington over at Mystoneycreek has written a very thoughtful and well-laid-out critique of the Board’s opponents, probably the best I’ve seen. I encourage everyone to read it. That being said, I thoroughly disagree….

First there’s the issue of who’s to blame. Some point fingers at School Board Trustees, others at the Provincial government. This is entirely beside the point There is more than enough blame to go around here – while Trustees were mandated by the Province to close schools, they chose which ones to shutter. There’s a really annoying tendency in Canadian politics to obsess over these kinds of divisions (Federal/provincial/municipal etc) in a way that universally differs responsibility and accountability. These are internal, self-imposed divisions and structures within the government, and it’s their responsibility to deal with the resulting complications, not ours.

Along with this point comes the question of provincial finances. “Our province is broke,” or so goes the claim. This is pretty laughable. We are one of the richest parts of one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Canada currently has the lowest debt:GDP ratio in the G8. There is no reason to believe we need a Greek-style “austerity” program here (or in Greece). These policies are failing cataclysmicly right now in Europe. Taking such claims uncritically risks economic suicide, as well as ensuring social disaster.

Then there’s the “demographic” question. Between our aging population and decades of suburban sprawl, many of these schools have seen a serious decline in enrolment. What isn’t being mentioned is the way that cuts like this drive families out of neighbourhoods and dissuade others from moving in. Decisions about neighbourhood services are not simply reactions to broader forces outside the control of municipal officials – they’re one of the prime drivers of those forces. Simply reacting here is only going to continue a cycle of neglect and de-funding in these areas, and lead to more “difficult” choices like this.

Finally, there’s the issue of tone. I won’t deny that some of the statements made on this issue have been pretty bitter. Some have even made me a bit uncomfortable (admittedly, I really like Bishop, Brennan and Johnstone). However, anger and vitriol are a part of politics. These are extremely contentious decisions which have many people understandably enraged. That’s democracy. I’ve always been really wary of trying to impose standards based on manners or fairness to these discussions because of the massive inherent imbalance in power. Politicians don’t ever need to raise their voice to inflict incredible amounts of damage on their subjects, while we’re often left with little recourse but mockery and name-calling. Such is the price of holding power and the money, prestige and influence which come with it. Let’s not pretend politicians, as a group, are particularly hard-done-by right now.

This issue does require a lot more discussion, dialogue and debate from every corner of our city. If there’s a way forward, it will be found together, not just complaining to our respective friends in our respective coffee shops. These closures affect tens of thousands of people and have huge implications for the future of our city, economically, geographically and socially. That’s going to spark some discontent, and it should.

Many community members participated heavily throughout the Board’s Accomodation Review Committee (ARC) process, the public consultation run by the board on these issues. As usually happens with these types of “consultations”, most walked away feeling ignored and tokenized. If the outrage coming from the West End right now (“Ward 1&2 Residents for Firing Judith Bishop”, etc) is a testament to anything, it’s the months of work these same people put into trying to work with the Board. Lesson learned: “working within the system” doesn’t work at all.

Demonstrators and signs are becoming a regular fixture at Board headquarters, and meetings are starting to sport extra security. More protests are planned for the upcoming days and weeks, and I suspect this is only the beginning of something a lot bigger. Will this finally be the issue that gets Hamiltonians mobilized about the abysmal state of our city and legacy of mismanagement? I hope so. The infamous Matt Jelly, in response to numerous pleas, has called a rally for Tuesday, June 19th at 5pm at the Board of Ed (100 Main St. W.), and of course there’s another “Cassarole” tomorrow night, which made a point to stop and denounce the closures last week while marching around the downtown core. Hope to see y’all at both, and many more in the future.

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