Sadly, some schools should close

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

It should sur­prise no one that the un­pop­u­lar On­tario govern­ment has put a half-hearted hold on un­pop­u­lar school clo­sures.

With the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion just 11 months away, Kath­leen Wynne’s Lib­er­als trail the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives by dou­ble dig­its, ac­cord­ing to some re­cent polls.

Faced with a pos­si­bly dev­as­tat­ing de­feat next June, the Lib­er­als are des­per­ately search­ing for ways to win friends and in­flu­ence vot­ers.

The school-clo­sure re­view an­nounced last week is just the lat­est straw this govern­ment is grasp­ing in its care­fully cal­cu­lated bid for re-elec­tion. Do­ing what’s pop­u­lar, even if it’s a du­bi­ous move, just might make the Lib­er­als more pop­u­lar — and electable.

But when it comes to the is­sue of school clo­sures, it’s im­por­tant to be clear what the govern­ment is and is not do­ing.

The 124 schools al­ready rec­om­mended for clo­sure re­main on the chop­ping block and will get the axe. Noth­ing can save them.

But for now, at least, On­tario school boards will not be able to put any more schools up for clo­sure.

The way the Lib­er­als tell it, this mora­to­rium al­lows the prov­ince to over­haul the process for clos­ing schools in a way that shows greater sen­si­tiv­ity to ru­ral and northern com­mu­ni­ties.

In re­al­ity, the move al­most cer­tainly lets the Lib­er­als kick a par­tic­u­larly un­pleas­ant can of worms down the road un­til af­ter next year’s vote. And an ex­plo­sive but­ton the op­po­si­tion par­ties have been press­ing will be de­fused.

Most of us un­der­stand why vir­tu­ally no one wants to see their neigh­bour­hood or com­mu­nity school shut.

Fam­i­lies grow at­tached to where their chil­dren learn.

Schools are revered as com­mu­nity hubs and pub­lic play­grounds — par­tic­u­larly in un­der­ser­viced ru­ral ar­eas.

Nor should any­one dis­count the prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion that school clo­sures can hurt prop­erty val­ues.

Per­haps in some cases, such as in iso­lated northern com­mu­ni­ties, un­der­used schools should be saved be­cause of their vi­tal im­por­tance to the peo­ple liv­ing there.

Yet despite the fine sen­ti­ments — and even rea­soned ar­gu­ments — ar­rayed against school clo­sures, there are many build­ings that sim­ply should be closed by demo­crat­i­cally elected school trus­tees.

En­rol­ment in tax­payer-funded On­tario schools is fall­ing.

There were 1,993,433 stu­dents en­rolled in these schools in 2015-16 — 125,111 fewer than in 2005-06.

Do we re­ally need the same num­ber of schools for so many fewer young peo­ple?

The de­cline in stu­dents can be more pro­found in spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties, whether in cities, towns or ru­ral places.

School build­ings, of course, re­quire main­te­nance, and that need only in­creases as the struc­tures age.

More­over, to put what is hap­pen­ing into con­text, the im­pend­ing clo­sure of 124 pub­licly funded schools in a prov­ince with 4,900 of them can­not be con­sid­ered an epi­demic.

There are times, re­gret­table though they may be, when it is a mis­take to pour tax dol­lars into a de­crepit, money-pit of a school.

There are times when pre­cious ed­u­ca­tion re­sources are wasted on crum­bling schools with few pupils in the class­rooms.

And, sadly, there are times when the com­mon pub­lic in­ter­est, rather than the in­ter­est of one com­mu­nity, is best served when a school is closed.

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