Many board of education watchers were pleasantly surprised when Trillium Lakelands District School Board trustees chose Wes Hahn as the new director of education.
Hahn hails from the District School Board of Niagara, a progressive board where he was known for his hands-on approach and frequent visits to schools.
Niagara board chair, Sue Barnett, says Trillium Lakelands will be fortunate to have him.
“He is concerned about poverty. He is charismatic, easy to talk to and very approachable,” Barnett says, “and he has grown up in a system that requires the superintendents to be in the schools weekly.”
Hahn beat out some well-entrenched internal candidates for the position, which starts on Aug. 1.
One former senior board employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there are “a lot of shocked people at the board office right now.”
“It was assumed by almost everyone that a candidate currently employed by the board would be appointed to continue the work of the current director. This indicates to me that the trustees were looking for a fresh face with new ideas,” the source said.
The former board employee said the Niagara board is viewed by many to be on the cutting edge of improving math scores and in working with communities hollowed out by job losses.
Niagara has been “willing to try new initiatives like their separate academy for students who have never had families attend post secondary school,” the source added.
Barnett, the Niagara board chair, said “Wes is all about the kids…making sure they get a hand up not a handout.”
“He has learned to listen…ponder all sides…and come up with the right decisions,” she added.
Hahn told the Advocate the first decision he and his partner need to make is where they are going to live and purchase a home as soon as possible.
“The trustees were very generous,” explained Hahn when he asked for instruction on where a director was expected to put down roots in TLDSB.
“They said that whether it is Muskoka, Haliburton or Kawartha Lakes that decision was completely up to us.”
He knows they will have to be patient finding housing in a market where houses are in short supply.
The new director says it feels like a bit of homecoming, given some local family associations.
“My Uncle Jim and my cousins lived first in Bobcaygeon and then in Buckhorn. I still have multiple cousins in the area. My Dad is an amateur painter and we spent a lot of time in the Kawartha Lakes region growing up visiting family and giving my father the opportunity to work on his passion for water colour landscapes,” he said.
Hahn’s background includes stops in the Toronto Board of Education and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board where in 2010 he was named by The Learning Partnership one of Canada’s outstanding principals.
Hahn has worked for the Niagara board since 2012, where he was most recently superintendent of special education, mental health and well-being.
The District School Board of Niagara services almost 36,000 students at 99 elementary and secondary schools located in communities like St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Beamsville, Welland and Fort Erie making it more than twice the size of the board Hahn is coming to, in terms of student population.
Niagara is struggling with life after manufacturing, with many communities like Welland, once home to a massive John Deere operation, now dealing with poverty first hand. Welland, with only 45,000 people requires the services of six food banks and Hahn, as superintendent, was responsible for the schools in Welland and area.
On local Kawartha Lakes hot button issues like French Immersion and busing Barnett suggests Hahn will be up to the challenges.
“Welland is 45 per cent French with burgeoning French immersion and French as a first language programs. Wes is very comfortable dealing with those families and that portfolio,” she says.
Regarding busing, Niagara struck a deal with the Catholic board “that has saved the public board $6 million in transportation costs that can instead be spent on making sure kids are educated properly.”
When asked by the Advocate what he brings to the table as a new director, Hahn listed several characteristics that define him as a person and an educational leader.
“I believe in making connections with people. I am a people first person. Second, I believe in building trust and working collaboratively with others. I want to be visible, engaged and in the schools as much as I can be,” he says.
Hahn says there are “so many things that distract us from teaching and I want to eliminate that as much as possible.”
He realizes there have been many difficult adjustments that have needed to be made since the pandemic struck, and “that change has created unwellness in staff and students and these issues need to be addressed.”
The new director said that, as “a system we need to focus on the well being of our families, kids, and communities as we contemplate what the fall of 2020 is going to look like.”
When asked about what his level of activism for TLDSB will be like with Queen’s Park on important educational issues Hahn said it will be situational.
“We have to take the mandate of the province and implement it locally. Anything that has anything to do with the kids or how to support staff and allow them to be successful will have my full support.”
He said teacher effectiveness “is only possible if staff feel good about what they are be asked to partner in.”
“We will work hard to instill public confidence in the system and what we are trying to do,” Hahn added.
Chair of the TLDSB trustees, Bruce Reain, believes the board has done well to sign Hahn to the first of possibly many five-year renewable contracts.
“We spent over four months on this hire,” Reain shared,” and it was an overwhelming but enjoyable experience for all involved. We received 40 applications, created a shortlist of six, interviewed them all and then created a final shortlist of two and interviewed again.”
The local board had to apply to the province for special permission to interview their final two candidates face to face.
Reain did not want a position this important to be decided without face-to-face interviews.
When asked why the board chose Hahn, Reain a former principal in Muskoka said they were “impressed with his compassion.”
The board was also taken with his “strong experience” in Niagara, and “the passion he has for all students to succeed and his focus to get out into all communities and work with many different groups including trustees, administrators, teaching staff and parents.”
“I have worked with excellent directors in my 45 years in education,” Reain told the Advocate, “and frankly…Wes was the first choice of all nine trustees after the second round of interviews occurred. We feel fortunate to have him.”
Hahn says outgoing director, Larry Hope, “has been fantastic in bringing me up to speed.”
“I will be involved in planning for the reopening. As the new person I need to understand the local context and that will influence how we re-open in Trillium.”
The new director is thankful for the amount of feedback the board has already collected, particularly from parents of students in the system.
On the issue of compensation that has been a problematic issue for the outgoing director, Hahn was diplomatic.
(According to ontariosunshinelist.com, Hope earned between $266,446 and $301,875 per year between 2017 and 2019, depending on the year.)
“I am a new director, and the trustees using provincial guidelines have crafted a very prudent package that is right in line with other boards based on number of schools and student enrollment.”
The former senior board employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said TLDSB can expect some significant changes on the horizon with Hahn as leader.
“Wes appears to be a young guy with a good run ahead of him. From my meetings and knowledge of the current Niagara director, things are going to change in some very significant ways locally as Wes gets comfortable and begins to craft the senior management team in his own image.”