Toronto grapples with school closings


Even caretaker Don Green, standing outside the century-old Silverthorn Junior Public School, says the ‘grand old lady’ has done her time. The school is being recommended for closing.

May 03, 2010

Louise Brown

Education Reporter–toronto-grapples-with-school-closings

There will be tirades. There could be tears.

But this time, the political fireworks of school closings seem missing. Pool closings made a bigger splash.

As the Toronto District School Board braces to consider closing at least nine schools next year – more than in any single year in a generation – local communities are likely to push back. Some will claim the folly of shuttering historic Kent Senior Public School, whose vaulting columns once welcomed the largest student body in Canada but which today stands at 42 per cent full.

Others will argue for Arlington Middle School, not yet 40 years old yet half empty, or Pringdale Gardens in the hub of one of Scarborough’s most needy communities, or Brooks Road., or McCowan Rd., or Briar Hill, or Silverthorn, or Peter Secor, or Heron Park.

Yet they will be up against the reality of a school board that bleeds 4,000 students a year to falling birth rates and the 905, whose trustees were willing to grab the political grenade of school closings even in an election year.

Last time, in 2000, there was political blood on the floor when Canada’s largest school board closed eight schools to respond to an abrupt new school funding formula. Parents rallied at board meetings to save beloved old schools like Hughes and Grace, to no avail.

But for 10 years the board steered clear of closing all but a handful, even as other Ontario boards closed dozens.

This time feels different. The outrage is more muted – two neighbourhoods even proposed closing two schools each – partly because of what some trustees report is a growing sense that it is irresponsible to run 110 half—empty schools.

And the political mood is less hostile than during the Harris regime.

But it is also a direct result of the cumbersome new way Queen’s Park makes boards close schools, which is to give neighbourhoods first dibs on which ones to close down – becoming, in a way, their own hanging judge.

Neighbours end up fighting neighbours, rather than government.

“It’s a little like Survivor on these committees – you know someone has to get kicked off the island, but who’s going to have to eat the lizard?” mused Trustee Josh Matlow.

For the past six months, parents in 10 Toronto neighbourhoods have been reviewing a total of 55 schools to see which might close and free up dollars for other needs. They spent months slugging it out to come up with an early hit list in a process that is so scattered, so localized and glacially slow it is almost impossible to make a dent on the public radar.

“The process this government has brought in is killing us, it moves so slowly,” said TDSB chair Bruce Davis. Only now, after six months of local consultation, will nine of these “Accommodation Review Committee” reports go to trustees for debate in the coming weeks – the first starts May 10 — and the public will have a chance to speak to the board. By the end of June, the board must decide whether to follow the community recommendations, or pass its own.

In September 2011, the first schools will close.

And the process starts again this fall with new reviews in more neighbourhoods until, if Education Director Chris Spence has his way, every one of the board’s 560 schools gets the once—over.

“We’re not targeting any one community, they’re all different,” said Spence, “but every school in the TDSB is going to go through this process” until the board has examined almost 1 million square feet of unused space.

Six of the schools proposed to close are junior highs, and at least 18 schools that now end at Grade 6 almost surely will morph into the favoured kindergarten—to—Grade 8 model.

It hasn’t been without strain. Trustee Maria Rodrigues felt compelled to ask for security guard protection at meetings in one ward where she felt threatened by an angry parent. A vocal Save Our Schools campaign by the support workers’ union has helped the Jane—Finch community win a temporary reprieve.

Nor is the problem unique. Kansas City just voted to close 26 of its 61 schools; British Columbia has closed some 150 schools in the past decade. Across Ontario, which will have 140,000 fewer students in 2012 than it had 10 years earlier, 172 schools already are marked for closing in the next three years, according to the advocacy group People for Education, whose spokesperson Annie Kidder argues some schools could be kept open and share their empty wings with community groups.

Then again, some are too old to be fixed, like stately Silverthorn Junior Public School near Keele and Eglinton, which is recommended to close after 101 years. Even caretaker Don Green, whose job category will shrink if the closing goes through, is philosophical about the end of an era.

“She was a grand old lady in her time; she’s served generations of people with great history, but she’s served her purpose,” said the veteran custodian. “I’m sentimental, but I’m also realistic; she’s done her time.”

Still, Toronto is grappling with closing schools long after most other school boards have gone through a culling, and debate promises to be emotional.

“We should drop the euphemisms,” suggested Trustee Josh Matlow. “Let’s stop saying school closings will get us ‘better schools and brighter futures’ and every student will get a pony and schools will be made of chocolate,” said Matlow, who nevertheless supports closing underenrolled schools and recommended 10 reviews a year.

“We should actually show empathy to people who face losing their school.”

Closing Time

MONDAY: Off the radar: the closing of Toronto schools

TUESDAY: The upside of side-by-side schools

WEDNESDAY: Banking on a new school

THURSDAY: Not without a fight

FRIDAY: Axe hangs over two Durham, three Toronto Catholic schools–three-neighbourhoods-press-for-new-schools


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