Ontario boards want the Ford government to end the ban on school closures and mergers

Ontario public school boards are asking the provincial government to lift a moratorium on school closures that has been in place since 2017 and to complete a review of how those closure decisions are being made.  (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - photo credit)

Ontario public school boards are asking the provincial government to lift a moratorium on school closures that has been in place since 2017 and to complete a review of how those closure decisions are being made. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press – photo credit)

School boards across Ontario are asking Premier Doug Ford’s government to lift a moratorium that has prevented them from merging or closing schools for nearly six years.

The association, which represents 31 English-speaking public school boards with more than 1.3 million students, is calling for an end to the ban on school closures introduced by the previous Liberal government of then Prime Minister Kathleen Wynne.

“We don’t think that when you have a school that should have 600 kids and it has 100 kids, that’s not tax defensible,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.

The Liberals introduced the moratorium in 2017 after facing political heat over local authorities’ decision to close schools with low enrollment and relocate their students to a new location. There are more than 4,800 schools in Ontario. In 2016-17, just before the moratorium went into effect, the board decided to close 19 schools.

“I don’t think it was ever intended to last six years,” Abraham said. “The fact that it’s taking so long has only compounded any problems we had with low-enrollment schools in 2017.”

Changing demographics are causing school enrollments to decline in certain locations, leaving trustees often faced with decisions about closures and mergers.

Association of Ontario Public School Boards

Association of Ontario Public School Boards

“We need an opportunity to have these talks,” Abraham said. “This is our role as a locally elected school board trustee.”

Ford’s progressive conservative government shows no signs of being ready to reopen the door to school closures.

Education Secretary Stephen Lecce declined CBC’s request for an interview on the matter. Lecce press secretary Grace Lee issued a statement that did not directly address the school board’s call for the moratorium to end.

“We are not closing schools,” the email reads. “Our government is providing $14 billion to modernize existing schools and build new state-of-the-art schools across Ontario with a focus on STEM learning, improved accessibility and technology.”

The issue of school closures does not only affect small towns and rural areas.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) had named 27 school clusters (10 in the secondary school and 17 in the elementary school) that it would like to review for possible mergers, as some are under capacity while others are at capacity.

Felicia Fahey

Felicia Fahey

However, until the government lifts the moratorium, the TDSB cannot even start that process, says CEO Rachel Chernos Lin.

“We have population shifts, and we end up with some schools that are underutilized and others that are bursting at the seams,” Chernos Lin said in an interview. “We have to be able to properly size these schools and sometimes that means consolidating schools or closing schools.”

Especially for secondary schools, the number of enrollments is critical to the student experience, Chernos Lin said.

“In one [high] School with 1,000 to 2,000 students you can offer a very extensive program with many different course options. In a school of 400 children, we cannot staff it with enough people to offer a rich program,” she said.

The TDSB’s priorities for review over the next two years are smaller secondary schools, which it describes as underutilized or with declining enrollment. including the George S. Henry Academy and the collegiate institutes L’Amoreaux, Oakwood, Thistletown, Stephen Leacock and Runnymede.

Elsewhere in the province, the Lambton-Kent District School Board forecasts nine of its 62 schools will be operating at less than 50 percent capacity over the next school year. The Upper Grand District School Board recently classified four of its schools as underutilized, with capacity currently less than 60 percent and expected to remain so.

CBC/Radio Canada

CBC/Radio Canada

Ontario’s school funding comes from the province in amounts per student. This means that schools with small populations often do not have the financial resources to support a full group of full-time staff, such as a headmaster, a secretary or specialized teachers.

“I’m not saying it’s not a good education, but it is [small schools] don’t have access to the same things as everyone else,” Abraham said.

Moratorium “should be a break”

Merging small schools can bring “access to more programs, more extracurricular activities and all those things that make a school experience richer,” she said.

Abraham says when faced with a school merger or closure where she serves as a trustee for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, she tries to get a specific message across.

“It’s not the bricks and mortar of a building that makes your school experience wonderful,” Abraham said. “It’s the people in this building, and those people will still be wonderful in a different set of bricks and mortar.”

Liberal MP Mitzie Hunter, who announced the 2017 moratorium as education secretary, said this week it was not for six years.

“It should be a pause so that we can develop a new system of school review that really gives the students, parents and community a stronger voice and integrates with the community,” Hunter told the Canadian Press.


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