Education

Schools on the block

Ontario is bracing for a rash of closures

ROBERT SHEPPARD November 9 1998
Education

Schools on the block

Ontario is bracing for a rash of closures

ROBERT SHEPPARD November 9 1998

Schools on the block

Education

Ontario is bracing for a rash of closures

When Romney Central School opened its doors 33 years ago, it was hailed as a shining example of all that was right in rural Ontario. That was then. Now, Romney school sits forlornly in an overgrown field near Lake Erie, its doors locked at the end of August. Its 160 students have been scattered by bus to other communities or are being taught by parents in a church basement. To date, Romney is the only school closed as a direct result of the province’s controversial new funding formula—a status it is about to lose in a big way. Last week, the Toronto District School Board released a list of 138 public schools it says it will have to shut to comply with the new funding rules. The proposed closures, released in a rage of rhetoric between school board and provincial authorities, represent almost a quarter of the public schools in Canada’s largest city. They also mark one of those rare occasions when urban and rural families have become consumed by the same penetrating concern: the loss of a neighborhood school. “This is driving communities nuts,” says Liz Sandals, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “Parents just love small schools.

But the funding formula doesn’t.”

Having surveyed its members rea cently, Sandals’s association estiI mates that as many as 300 public 2 schools across the province may ° close by the next school year. The 138 Toronto schools on the block include a handful of large, modern junior high schools, technical schools with low enrolment, and nearly all the small alternative schools in the city including Heydon Park— a haven for 250 girls from abusive or malfunctioning homes who have trouble in the mainstream system. “This means devastation for our girls,” says Heydon Park principal Eleanor Gower. “If placed in a larger school, they will always be the ones in the back of the class and the first to drop out.” The closures, which must be confirmed by Dec. 31, will have a ripple effect on the community at large. Toronto board chairwoman Gail Nyberg warns that day care centres, recreational groups and busing routes will be affected. Boundaries will have to be redrawn around surviving schools,

which may get more new students than they bargained for. Hardest hit will be the downtown core, which municipal politicians fear will be “hollowed-out” by the closures. “We are going to begin to look like those cities we love to hate, like Chicago and Detroit,” says Nyberg. ‘This is something Toronto has been trying to avoid for 50 years.”

Charging the Toronto board with fearmongering, Education Minister Dave Johnson says the board can simply sell its big offices and unused properties instead of

closing schools. But the situation is more complex: the province’s new rules calculate operating funding by dividing an average square-foot-per-student measure into the overall area of a school, a formula that does not take into account gyms, libraries, music rooms or the large corridors of schools built in another era. By this reckoning, Toronto is deemed to have 990,000 square metres of surplus space in its existing schools.

A complicating factor is the end-of-year deadline. If boards want provincial help to build new schools in growing neighborhoods, they have to commit to closing facilities by Dec. 31. Otherwise, their existing capacity stays on the books. Those who submit a list of closures then turn over their properties to the government to dispose of;

those who do not can sell schools themselves at a later date and keep the money.

This second option may work for cities like Toronto where underutilized schools can sit on valuable downtown property. But it has no meaning for rural communities where disposal sales will not yield much and can also rob towns of their only public meeting place. Faced with parental anger, rural districts appear to be backing away from announced plans to close schools, at least for the moment. But they are still paying a price. In Elgin County, one of three rural school districts forced to amalgamate recently with the city of London, teaching assistants for junior kindergarten programs have been reassigned to special needs programs in London, core French courses in the early grades have been abandoned and computer technicians, hired instead of librarians, are no longer on the payroll. “There is a fear we’ve lost a voice, being thrown in with London,” says West Elgin deputy may-

or Graham Warwick. “Their needs are so heavy and ours don’t seem to count.”

In Romney, social worker Bob Shepherd is trying to get the Lambton Kent District School Board to overturn the closure decision, while his wife, Christie Dawson, oversees a home-schooling co-op for 14 kids in the donated basement of the local United Church. The school, designed as a central magnet for the local farming community, had been home to pickup basketball games on Friday nights, the square-dancing club, Halloween parties and New Year’s Eve dances. It is just “around the corner” from Shepherd’s home. “But, you know,” he says, “I just don’t go by there anymore.”

ROBERT SHEPPARD