Province tweaks school closing rules
Seven months down the drain. Long-awaited Ontario draft guidelines on how school boards go about closing half-empty schools are getting a frosty reception from trustees, rural school advocates and Queen’s Park critics alike.
Not lost on some critics, either, is that Ontario is heading into a June election, with the divisive issue of school closings — about 600 schools are on their death beds — sure to become a campaign issue.
Ontario’s Ministry of Education quietly released the draft, nearly seven months after an about-face on its old rules — the second overhaul in three years — that brought school closings to a halt across Ontario.
The revised draft guidelines aren’t a groundbreaking departure from the old ones, said the chairperson of Southwestern Ontario’s largest school board, calling it a relatively minor rejigging that wasn’t worth the major disruption and delays the overhaul caused.
“A lot of the things they have identified in here are already things that are happening,” Matt Reid of the Thames Valley District school board said Monday. “They’re already best practices in Thames Valley.” The board, one of Ontario’s largest, was trying to grapple with 15,000 empty student spaces when the province abruptly halted all school closing and consolidation reviews pending a guideline overhaul.
Across Southwestern Ontario, between a dozen school boards, about 55,000 student desks are empty.
“What’s frustrating, from my perspective, is delaying this has cost the board well over $5 million potentially, if closings actually were able to have gone forward,” Reid said, adding the moves are necessary to offer more class options for high school students.
“At the small schools we really have a lot of difficulty providing all the core courses, let alone courses like law or sociology.”
Among other changes, the new guidelines slightly extend the time frame for school closing reviews, which also include decisions on attendance boundary changes and building new facilities.
The final rules are expected out this spring, guidelines boards will use to fashion their own policies. The ministry, which posted the draft online, will collect public input until March 23.
Rural school advocate and former London-area Liberal MPP Doug Reycraft, who chairs the Community Schools Alliance, will be among those making submissions to the ministry.
He said he’s not surprised by the draft rules, but that they don’t go far enough to protect small schools or single-school communities.
Reycraft wanted to see longer time lines than the minimums in the draft and is disappointed the province didn’t produce recommendations on fostering community partnerships.
“One of the main objectives, right from our formation in 2009, has been to foster collaboration and better working relationships between school boards and municipalities,” he said. “I don’t see anything in the new guidelines that moves the yard stick on that issue.”
With the hot-button issue back in play, one that’s divided communities and pit parents against boards, school closings are bound to become an issue in Ontario’s June election, one critic says.
“For rural communities in particular, the school is much more than a vehicle to deliver education to students. It is truly a hub in the community, it is an economic development tool,” said London West MPP Peggy Sattler, the NDP education critic at Queen’s Park. - The London Free Press