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unimaginative2

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Toronto grapples with school closings

May 3, 2010

LOUISE BROWN

EDUCATION REPORTER

TORONTO STAR

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.”

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I think that closing a school, especially a historic one, should really be a last resort. I went to a very old and historic high school and I really believe that it enhanced my education. The old buildings also tend to have facilities that newer schools don't, like auditoriums and wide hallways. If they do ultimately need to close (and I'm sure a few do), I hope that the buildings are preserved. Some of them are fantastic old Edwardians. There are lots of examples of good adaptive reuse, like the Alexandra School condo conversion in Waterloo.

I definitely support the switch to the K to 8 model. Junior high is just insane.
 
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Observer Walt

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We already have a thread for this issue, which this should be merged into.

It's difficult to close a school, especially an elementary school. Parents want little kids to attend school as close as possible to home. It's good to see the Toronto board is recently taking the issue seriously, after many years of resisting any sales at all. Enrollment is dropping by about 4,000 students per year. You can't justify maintaining 70 to 80 completely vacant properties, not to mention many more which are running at 50% capacity.

The Catch-22 is that some of the handsome old historic buildings are the worst physically, and uneconomic to repair. They are energy-inefficiient, having been built in the days when fuel was cheap and insulation was not a top priority. Some of them have asbestos, and lead pipes, both of which are health hazards, not to mention mould in the walls.

You make a good point that taking some of these old structures out of school use does not necessarily mean tearing them down. "Adaptive reuse", probably for residential purposes, is a real option for many of them, allowing preservation of the heritage features -- and of course allowing the school board to recover some much-needed money.
 

nfitz

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I don't know we just don't merge the separate and public school boards. Surely it is bigotry to fund one religion's schooling if we don't fund others.

If there was just a single board, then we would minimize the distance between neighbourhood schools.

Well two boards if you still have a French and English ... but better than the existing four.
 
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taal

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Vancouver's school board is dealing with the exact same issue ... although I think they've already proceeded and closed some schools at this point.
 

scarberiankhatru

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Many of these schools are closing because the expansion model that built them no longer works, and not just because changing demographics make them unfeasible...they were unfeasible decades ago. 40-50 or so years ago, subdivisions were built as neighbourhood units where each bunch of crescents and culs-de-sac were built around a school, a park, maybe a plaza, and a hierarchal road network. The ideal was many tiny schools, each an intimate little community, and each located within a few minutes walking distance of every house. Obviously, since the houses were all built at the same time, a huge blob of cohorts went through the schools together and now those kids are gone - and they'll probably never come back in cohorts of that size because as time goes by more and more residents in local houses are at different stages in their life and huge cohorts just won't form randomly the way they do when you have young families moving to a new subdivision.

There's dozens and dozens and dozens of schools that were built to hold, say, 200 kids, and when the demographic tsunami came through shortly after, they swelled to 300 by adding portables, but now the wave is gone and the school has 150 kids and no more portables. Two of these schools generally can't be consolidated without building a new school: 150 + 150 would mean going back to portables, and the buildings themselves are invariably falling apart, so even building just a new wing isn't good enough. The boards and the province are bending over backwards to avoid these kinds of massive bills and are just barely keeping up with years-overdue basic maintenance. They've closed some but there's still too many (mostly elementary) schools open and even if overall enrollment wasn't dropping, it would not be static or rising equally across the city...the smaller schools are, the more of them will always be threatened with closure as they pass below various efficiency thresholds. Fewer but larger schools is really the only thing that'll work in the long term and boards know this...no longer do they build a horde of 200 student schools when they can build a bunch of 400 student schools. School unions will fight this, of course, and there's tons of issues to deal with (Catholic vs public enrollment patterns, class sizes, support staff allocation, potential busing, renovation budgets, teary parents forcing their kids to hold up "Thistletwig Elementary is my home" signs at public meetings, etc., etc.).
 

Coruscanti Cognoscente

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The Peel and Dufferin-Peel school boards have been closing schools as well. Oddly enough, my high school (St. Joseph) still has a good 20+ portables.
 

lead82

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It truly makes sense to close the old and inefficient schools. Just like anything in this city it takes ages for any decision to happen. All the meanwhile money is being wasted by operating half empty schools.
 

Basshats

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The Peel and Dufferin-Peel school boards have been closing schools as well. Oddly enough, my high school (St. Joseph) still has a good 20+ portables.

Which is strange since enrollment has dropped from a peak of almost 2300 about 8-9 years ago to about 1830 this year.

In the case of Peel and DP, the closures are primarily geared towards becoming eligible for more funding to open schools in the higher growth areas in northern Brampton.
 

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