Freedom of Information request reveals email from Mayor David Augustyn to Board trustee
By ZACH JUNKIN, Special to the VOICE
At a district School Board of Niagara Policy Committee meeting held on Tuesday, January 17, committee members approved a number of changes to board policy A-09, which deals with the naming and renaming of schools.
The new policy will see minor changes to the composition of future renaming committees, as well as to the naming criteria, and to the way naming input is sought and communicated to local residents.
The policy adjustments have come after a contentious name change in Pelham last year which saw E.W Farr Memorial School in Fenwick renamed to Wellington Heights. However, in an email exchange with the Voice, School Board Trustee Dale Robinson stated that the changes were not directly related.
“Policy A-09 was due for revision in 2017,” said Robinson, “We generally set a five year timeline for review. However, when something changes or the Ministry mandates that updates be made, revision can happen earlier, at the request of trustees and/or DSBN staff.”
The new policy did, however, take into account complaints and comments logged online by local residents, said Robinson.
“We did receive input from the community via the DSBN website which was incorporated into the revised policy, A-09, approved at last week’s meeting.”
When asked if the name Wellington Heights would meet the criteria of the new policy, Robinson thought it would.
“The first consideration under the naming criteria in policy A-09 is that the name chosen be inspiring to students,” she said. “As the name Wellington Heights came from the students, we feel that criterion was met. The students from both schools came together at Wellington Heights in September and have been very happy to adopt their new school identity.”
E.W Farr Memorial School was named after prolific local educator Edgar Farr in 1950. Students and the local community were first informed of a potential name change in the spring of 2016, when the Board decided to close Pelham Centre Public School and merge it with what was then E.W. Farr. At the time, Trustee Robinson remarked that in such situations it was common for the board to take a new name into consideration.
“When the DSBN undertakes the consolidation of two school communities into one, the option of creating a new name is always considered,” she said.
However, as the situation unfolded, a number of Pelham residents expressed dissatisfaction with the Board’s process, arguing that the DSBN did not follow their own naming criteria, and that the Board has been intractable in the face of community opposition.
The name Wellington Heights is an indirect reference to the Duke of Wellington, and comes from a scrawl in the margins of a map outlining a potential British fort proposed for the top of the Fonthill Kame, near what is now Lookout Golf Course. Residents who oppose the name Wellington Heights have cited a lack of local relevance and historic substance.
Pelham Council showed its support for those residents last June when it approved a resolution that asked the Board to rethink the name change, requesting, “that the DSBN reconsider the change in the name for the E.W. Farr Elementary School, due to the feedback received from the community and given the historical and heritage significance of Mr. Farr as a local educator in the village of Fenwick.”
However, while Council as a whole requested that the Board reconsider their decision, Pelham’s Mayor David Augustyn sent a separate message to Board Trustee Robinson explaining that Council had gone against his ruling.
In an email obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Augustyn wrote, “I wanted to let you know that Council discussed the recent renaming of E.W. Farr School last night. Councillor Accursi asked to add it to the agenda of our committee of the whole meeting. He challenged my ruling, and it was over-turned by Council (2 agreed, 4 disagreed with my ruling), so we had to discuss it.”
“I did explain that the library would still be named after Mr. Farr and that 63% of the 250 respondents to your survey did not like the name, but Council approved that motion,” he added.
A source intimately familiar with the chain of events leading to Council’s vote told the Voice that they felt that Augustyn hindered efforts to keep the old name, and that he seemed to believe that Wellington Heights was the official name of the proposed fort, a position not supported by any evidence.
“Dave really thought Wellington Heights was the name of the Fort. He was convinced there was a map in the offices that ‘proved’ it.”
Such a map was never found, and its existence was debunked in a November presentation to Council made by Kevin Ker, who spoke on behalf of a local group hoping to reverse the name change.
Right up until that meeting, says the source, the Mayor seemed to believe the Wellington Heights map existed.
“He sat there bobbing his head in agreement, when I know earlier in the day he was searching for his ‘smoking gun’ — his ‘map’ for his ah-ha moment,” adding, “but what should concern Council is that Dave immediately contacted the Board Chair unilaterally and essentially apologized for a Council decision!”
Results from an informal survey published in this issue of the Voice show that over 90% of some 500 respondents believe that the DSBN should reverse the name change.