Seek alternatives to school closings
TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – Seek alternatives to school closings
September 02, 2008
As Ontario schoolchildren return to class this week, some are facing more than just back-to-school jitters.
Labour troubles loom over the new school year after collective bargaining agreements for the province’s teachers expired on Sunday. The Catholic teachers’ union has already settled with the province, but unions representing public elementary and high school teachers have yet to strike a deal.
Some students are confronting an even more upsetting prospect: the closing of their schools. People for Education, the parent advocacy group, reported recently that 77 schools across the province are slated or recommended to close over the next three years.
That could be just the tip of the iceberg. A low birth rate, as well as migration from rural to urban areas, is forcing many school boards to grapple with declining enrolment. Over the last five years, Ontario elementary and secondary schools have seen enrolment fall by 68,000 students, and 60 of the province’s 72 school boards are expecting fewer students this year than last, according to government figures.
That trend has left many boards in a dilemma: keep half-empty schools open, even though they cannot offer the same range of classes and resources as larger schools, or take the politically risky decision to close them altogether, often over the strong objections of the communities the schools serve.
There is no question that some schools should be closed. But before rushing to shut down these valuable public resources, school boards and governments ought to put their heads together to see if some of them can be put to more creative uses. Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, says declining enrolment poses “a huge challenge,” but she also calls it “a perfect opportunity to rethink what we do with school buildings.”
In many neighbourhoods, underused schools have the potential to become true community hubs – one-stop shopping for child care, parenting information, public health clinics, sports teams, and settlement services for new Canadians. But rigid funding and jurisdictional walls between provincial ministries and different levels of government make it difficult to conceive of school buildings as anything other than schools. (The ongoing struggle to keep Toronto’s school pools open is a case in point.)
The province’s education funding formula, which allocates a substantial proportion of funding on a per-student basis, also works against small schools. Queen’s Park has already tweaked parts of the formula to make it less susceptible to enrolment drops and has taken steps to help boards adjust to lower student numbers. But more thought needs to be given to how to fund schools as student numbers continue to shrink.
Education Minister Kathleen Wynne clearly recognizes there is a problem. Earlier this year, she appointed a working group to come up with strategies to deal with declining student numbers. Its final report is due by the end of the year.
In the meantime, school boards are at various stages of wrestling with the issue. The Toronto public board has set in motion a ward-by-ward review of all its properties, while other boards have already identified underused schools they plan to close.
Some school closings are inevitable. But boards and municipal and provincial governments ought also to keep their minds open to unconventional solutions.