Province not excused from school closures
To the list of baggage the Wynne government must carry into the coming provincial election campaign, add school closures.
A new report by the education advocacy group, People for Education, points out Ontario school boards are recommending closure of 121 schools over the next three years, with rural communities hit hardest.
The province is quick to point out that closing schools falls under the jurisdiction of school boards. True, but that doesn’t factor in the extent to which provincial education funding guidelines are inflexible when it comes to school capacity. Too many empty seats in an underused school translates into less money for school boards to build new schools where they are needed. Therefore the province’s buck-passing doesn’t ring entirely true.
The debate around school closures is always contentious. Boards use an accommodation review protocol, but that doesn’t satisfy parents who argue the process is tilted toward staff recommendations, based on faulty math or not valid due to other shortcomings. Hamilton has had its share of closure trauma. And there’s more to come. And Burlington is in the midst of a secondary school review pitting school against school, neighbourhood against neighbourhood.
The Burlington situation is complicated by the fact that a city councillor, Marianne Meed Ward, sits on the committee making closure recommendations. Critics contend she cannot fairly represent the interests of parents, the city and the school board, and that her presence tilts playing field in favour of the school in her neighbourhood. Whether that’s a legitimate complaint or not, the optics around a councillor wearing two hats in a situation like this are not good.
Opposition leader Patrick Brown has called for a moratorium on closures, and that position is supported by parents in communities like Burlington. But that would stop the clock on possibly needed changes. It’s also worth noting that Brown, like other closure critics, is better at saying the current process is broken than suggesting a better one.
For the bottom line, look no further than census data released this week. We are getting older, and fewer kids are being born. Immigration is making up for that to a point, but we still have many schools — inner city and rural especially — that are underpopulated and inefficient. Sometimes they can’t offer optimal programming. About 600 schools in Ontario are currently at less than half capacity.
But are closures being handled optimally? Does the government need to do more to pressure school boards (public, separate and French) to find efficiencies and perhaps share accommodation? We need more debate and innovation on this. It’s not enough for the province to simply point the finger at local boards.