Were social license or civic space part of the decision to close two Burlington high schools ?

opinionandcommentBy Rory Nisan

January 14th, 2018



What is democracy?

Is it a single act, an election every four years?

Certainly, that is one part of democracy, an essential but not sufficient component. Without the ability to have the final word on our leadership through a free and fair vote, and the ability to do so in a human rights-based system, with freedoms of association and expression, we do not have democracy.

However, a vote every four years does not guarantee that leaders will listen to their constituents in the long gaps between elections.

Is democracy a decision made by an elected representative?

Trustees - fill board +

Halton District School Board trustees in session

When that person is balancing the values and interests of their constituents, the sum total of decisions is certainly an important aspect of democracy.

Yet, individual decisions by representatives can nevertheless be anti-democratic if they are taken for other reasons, such as payback to political, union, private or corporate interests who have funded their campaign, or to further professional goals (promotion, a future private sector career, fear of disagreeing with a senior bureaucrat).

Is democracy the social licence given to leaders from civil society?

Licences carry responsibilities to be maintained. They are only given when tests are passed. They can be revoked. Social licence is critical to democracy.

Is democracy a function of civic space?

When a society has the room it needs to engage in decisions that affect it — and it fills that space with collective action, we have the strongest democracies.

As far as the decision to close Pearson and Bateman High School is concerned, we do not believe that civic space was respected; nor was any social licence given to trustees to make that decision. We were then let down a second time by an Administrative Review process that supported the decision of the trustees despite noting several flaws in the process. We expected a better outcome based on the consultations we had with the facilitator and the numerous violations of policy we had uncovered.

Miller Diane addressing Wilson HDSB

Administrative Review Facilitator Margaret Wilson listening to Diane Miller.

Yet, while there are errors and omissions in the Administrative Review report, our battle was never with the facilitator, because the true letdown was a Program and Accommodation Review (PAR) that was so deeply flawed that the Premier had to put a halt to all PARs shortly after ours was completed.

Second, the original sin was committed by trustees who voted against our schools in the first place; they did so against strong evidence as well as the wishes of a clear majority of constituents. And we cannot forget one trustee whose failure of leadership all but ensured the closure of Pearson High School.

The community will bear the consequences of these errors for years to come, and the “divide and conquer” approach to community engagement of the Halton District School Board and the PAR process has left the Burlington community divided.

Has democracy failed us?

It has been said that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all of the other ones, and we certainly feel that way at the moment.

Still, we need to expand our horizons in reflecting on this encounter with democracy, politics, interests and values. Because while Burlington is going to be worse off as a result of the school closures, we have made strides in improving democracy as well as local and provincial governance as a result of the actions taken.

We stood up for what we believed in and proved that decisions in Burlington and Halton cannot be taken lightly in the future. We did so by protesting in the middle of winter, by putting up signs and getting signatures, and so many other activities to get our voices heard. We will also make sure that future decisions are better made, by supporting candidates for trustees later this year who understand the foolishness of the decisions taken, who will actually read our emails and who have the analytical and leadership skills that our community deserves.

rory shot

Rory Nisan

We engaged the province in our fight, pulling no punches in confronting Premier Wynne with our plight. She took notice, as did Education Minister Hunter, as did MPP McMahon. As a result of our tireless conviction, and that of other citizen groups around the province, Wynne put a hold on all PAR processes, thereby admitting that they have failed Ontarians. It was too late for our schools because our PAR process had concluded, but it may save many others.

Furthermore, Leader of the Official Opposition Patrick Brown has promised to stop all school closures should he be elected on June 7, in part because of our advocacy, meaning our collective efforts could have an even bigger impact across the province.

We also exposed the flaws in the decision and in the process, so when a new system of reviewing schools is developed they will have a “worst practice”, which has been carefully documented by our teams, upon which to draw.

Importantly, we also learned how to advocate for our community: how to push our objectives in the media, how to go door-to-door for signatures, how to build momentum, how to convince people to get involved. These democracy skills are ours to keep.

And finally, we gained enthusiasm. We will not go home. We will continue to advocate for Burlington’s children when they are confronted with bad ideas from un- elected bureaucrats who have forgotten that they were not elected, or from elected representatives who have forgotten how to represent.

Several years down the road, when the Director of Education has moved on to a new position, and most or all of the trustees have been voted out or retired, we will still be in Burlington, fighting for our kids.

And by holding our elected officials’ feet to the fire and never giving up on what we believe in, we will be agents of change, and create a better Burlington.

rory closeupRory Nisan is a long-time Burlington resident and Lester B. Pearson High School alumnus. He has been an active member of the Save Pearson community organization, serves on the City of Burlington’s Mundialization Committee, and is co-creator and co-organizer of the One Burlington Festival, which brings together Burlingtonians of different faiths and cultures.








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10 comments to Were social license or civic space part of the decision to close two Burlington high schools ?Nisan opinion

  • Steve Atkinson

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis Rory, and for your hard work on behalf of the Pearson community.

    I feel the community engagement was the weak point in the PAR. On the one hand we said; “There is no engagement, there is no feedback, there are no answers, we cannot ask questions”. In response the Board, the Trustees , the Ministry and Margaret Wilson said; ” But we gave you an IPSOS survey”. We said ” the data is flawed” ( it was ). The Board and Trustees replied ” Based on our data we will close schools”. We said “the PAR is flawed and all PARS are stopped in Ontario by order of the Minister of Education”. The Board and Trustees said “Our PAR moves forward and is not affected or aware of the pause in all Ontario PAR and we will not address it “. We wanted time, they wanted haste. Why?

    We brought forth relevant, important information in a professional manner that was somehow sucked away into this vacuum of obstinate bureaucracy that no one at The Board heard, acted upon or seemed to understand. Mostly the replies I received were “Noted” if I received a reply at all, from anyone. This behaviour gives me the impression that the Board and Trustees acted upon the old PAR method, where citizens were not included in the process. School Boards own the properties and will advise us what they will do with them. The new community engagement component was imposed upon them and they acted accordingly, in my opinion. But the decision has irrevocably changed the Pearson and Bateman communities, and Burlington.

    If there really is a desire from the Ministry to improve this process, the community must be actually included and not just on paper.

  • Alide Camilleri

    A long time ago, as a reporter I covered various school board meetings (never in Halton) and came to the personal conclusion, not expressed in my reportage, that the least democratic institutions are School Boards. Trustees are often little tin pot dictators who have little regard for the concerns of parents. So, Rory, keep it up but keep Patrick Brown out of it.

  • Diane

    Well said Rory. You are correct, long after others are gone, the community members will continue to want what is best for the children/teens. So many solutions would have resulted in improved programming and spaces across all the schools, besides the ones that were landed upon.

    Hoping that this process has inspired many to run for positions within local government. The decisions made at the municipal level impact our lives on a daily basis.

    Thank you for your vision and reminding us once again that our voices matter.

  • Cheryl Delugt

    There was such a lack of leaderships with many trustees. I don’t think anyone realized the power and the importance of their jobs. I think burlington citizens have an idea now. Can’t wait for the next election. Bring it on

  • joe gaetan

    Very good Rory, many of the points illustrated,also apply to the Official Plan process underway. The OP as it stands will have enormous impact on what our city will look like and the two are interconnected where true engagement is concerned.

  • Cheryl Delugt a very disappointed parent

    Wow!!! So well said Rorey. My heart is completely broken that Margaret Wilson nor the provincial government could not recommended a redo. There were so many caring and compassionate parents in Burlington that had amazing innovative ideas on how to utilize the empty spaces in schools rather than to jumping to closing schools. This whole parc process has been flawed from the start and it has divided and destroyed Burlington. By the closure of these two schools Lester B Pearson and Robert Bateman has done nothing for programming at Central, Aldershot nor did it fix the overcrowding at Dr. Frank Hayden. How is any Burlington citizen not voicing their concerns that there are 12 portable still on the property at Hayden potentially going up to 18 to help with the overcrowding. Citizens of Burlington can’t gain access to that community centre at Hayden but this is acceptable?? With the closure of these two schools there shouldn’t be one damn portable at that school yet the school board and this provincial government allowed this flawedprocess to destroy our city. Shame on you Halton district school board, the elected school trustees, Mitzy Hunter and the provincial government Just wait until the election in October Burlington things will be changing Mark my word So Utterly disappointed in this school board that we entrust our children with

  • John Paul

    I’ll be there as well, being positive about the changes, happy my kids are going to these new and improved schools instead of half empty ones which lacked programming and courses.

  • George Ward

    The Administrative Review Facilitator’s report by Ms. Margaret Wilson final statement “Based upon my review and consultations, I conclude that, while there were violations of the Board PAR Policy, they were such that they had no material effect on either the deliberations of the PARC or on the final decisions of the Board”.

    This is quite a statement considering the Ontario Ministry of Education acknowledged the process as flawed and put a halt to all school closing until the process was fully reviewed and improved.

    It now makes one wonder if the closing of two Burlington high schools Lester B. Pearson and Robert Bateman “had no material effect” on the community?

  • George Ward

    Excellent Article Rory,
    This city needs clear thinking fellows like yourself to run for office to start to clear out the nonsense.

    It is disappointing the Ontario Ministry of Education, despite their own acknowledgement of the process being flawed, chose to support the flawed decisions of the Halton District School Board and Trustees using the existing flawed process.

    It appears the Ontario Ministry of Education only permitted the Administrative Review to proceed as an attempt to assuage the concerned citizens of parents of Lester B. Pearson and Robert Bateman High Schools.

    The actions or inaction of the Ontario Government, the Ontario Ministry of Education, the Halton District School Board and Trustees in the process of closing two Burlington high schools has resulted in an upset and vengeful community.

  • Sharon

    Well written Rory!