Ontario’s Ombudsman has issued a report on the Near North District School Board’s September 2017 decision to close Widdifield Secondary School, and is calling on the board to revisit the decision.

Paul Dubé’s latest investigation determined the board failed to follow a fair and transparent process.

The Ombudsman says 11 complaints were made after the decision was made to close the school, which is on hold pending a decision from the province about funding.

All 14 recommendations made by the Ombudsman have been accepted by the board to improve transparency and rebuild public trust.

“The board’s failure to follow a rigorous and transparent process damaged its relationship with stakeholders,” the Ombudsman writes in his report, Lessons Not Learned, which notes that the board was advised to implement such measures in the wake of a similar situation in 2013, but never did. “The credibility of the entire consolidation process and closure process was undermined by the board’s failure to share relevant information, and ultimately generated public distrust in its final decision.”

The investigation reviewed the various steps the board took in considering consolidation of its three North Bay secondary schools, beginning in 2016. By June 2017, trustees were considering a committee’s recommendation that a different school be closed. “There was no information publicly available to explain why, by September, Widdifield had become the target for closure,” Mr. Dubé notes.

His report reveals that trustees held a closed-door “workshop” meeting on July 13, 2017 where the schools and other matters were discussed – and they received an email six days later, informing them that an architect had confirmed expanding Widdifield was not feasible. None of this was ever made public, he points out: “The community was deprived of the opportunity to respond or be consulted on the new information considered by trustees in the summer of 2017.”

The Ombudsman recommends the board issue a public report that sets out the evidence trustees relied on in making their decision, and take a new vote on the matter only after the public has been given a chance to comment. He also makes several recommendations to ensure the board no longer holds closed meetings that violate the Education Act.

In the board’s response, appended to the Ombudsman’s report, Chair Jay Aspin states: “We are committed to moving forward with improved policies, guidelines, and procedures to increase transparency, fairness and accountability to our students, stakeholders and constituents.”

Aspin told BayToday he’s ordered a report from the Director of Education about what went wrong during efforts to close Widdifield Secondary School as part of a consolidation process, so it can be rectified.

He also promises a full public meeting before any decision is made regarding future consolidation of schools.


(File photo by station staff)

Filed under: near-north-district-school-board, ombudsman, paul-dube, widdifield-secondary-school