Prov­ince not ex­cused from school clo­sures

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

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.

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