Sunday, April 1, 2012

Time for Toronto to close some schools

The Toronto District School Board serves the largest and most diverse student body in Canada. It faces all kinds of financial challenges and yet still manages to offer innovative education programs.

But the school board is also a pack rat — and that, increasingly, is contributing to its problems. It hangs on to far too many half-empty schools that it can’t afford because they might be useful someday. Keeping these schools open is certainly easier for trustees than battling with parents and local communities over which ones to close, but it wastes scarce education dollars. This can’t go on.

According to the province, the Toronto public board has the equivalent of about 170 schools that it doesn’t need. A fairer accounting that included the valued community programs that are run in some schools would produce a lower figure. And the number of those that should be closed is lower still because there are opportunities to fill some schools by adding programs that would serve the needs of the whole neighbourhood: child care, evening and weekend recreation, activities for seniors, public health clinics and settlement services for new Canadians.

But there’s no denying that a significant number of schools need to close, and it’s time Toronto trustees got serious about it. Enrolment has been declining for years; Ontario has 128,000 fewer students than it did a decade ago. Underused schools are an issue not just for Toronto’s public board, but its size and the energetic community activism here make its problems bigger and harder to solve.

The latest Ontario budget tries to force the matter by stripping $116 million in funding that helps to keep underutilized schools open. Toronto’s public board will be the hardest hit when that funding starts disappearing next year.

It is understandable that at a time of scarce resources the province wants to ensure every education dollar is used efficiently. Half-empty schools offer neither good educational opportunities for students nor good value for taxpayers. But it isn’t good enough to simply cut school budgets and move on. The province needs to help bring about positive change.

Part of the trustees’ reluctance to close schools is borne of a legitimate concern that in the future families will return to some neighbourhoods and they’ll need a school there. That’s why a rational approach is needed to determine where schools are most likely to be needed. Determining how best to turn some schools into community hubs that serve the needs of the entire neighbourhood takes real cooperation among trustees, city councillors and provincial officials. While everyone seems to agree with this in principle, so far it’s happened in only a few isolated cases.

Parents and homeowners rarely want a school in their community to close. But to provide quality education for all students in an era of declining enrolment, some must shut their doors. It makes no sense to heat empty classrooms when schools can’t afford to hire a librarian or upgrade science labs. Our students deserve better.

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