There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about under-utilized schools in Ontario. Education Minister Liz Sandals has been clear: facing a stubborn deficit, the province cannot afford to spend nearly $1-billion a year maintaining, cleaning and repairing schools that don’t have enough students in the classrooms. We simply cannot afford to divert precious dollars away from student success towards heating empty classrooms, she argues.
But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in the need to save money. We need to find a means to keep these public assets in public hands. What’s to be done?
Perhaps to force the need to economize, the government cut some $500-million from the education budget; the opposition screamed bloody murder, saying this amounted to a massive cut to education, which is rubbish. Funding per pupil continues to dramatically increase, even as enrolment of pupils rapidly declines as the birth rate remains low.
The Toronto District School Board in particular, amongst its other governance challenges, has emerged as a flashpoint in this debate: the Minister wants a plan in mere weeks to deal with the reality that some 131 schools across the city are at less than 65 per cent capacity.
The reality in rural Ontario is equally acute: towns increasingly need to merge schools, as bussing costs are less than running three separate schools in each small town in the “catchment area”.
Right now, the regulatory requirement is that municipal councils and other public institutions (such as colleges or universities) effectively have right of first refusal if the school board seeks to sell a school. However, there is currently a stipulation that any sale must be at “fair market value”.
This is an unnecessary hindrance to keeping schools in public hands.
People for Education’s Annie Kidder champions making schools more than just classroom space, and rather “community hubs”. Edward Keenan wrote in a column, “these schools are already community spaces scattered through virtually every neighbourhood around the city, and have long served as parks and sports facilities for their neighbours. If we cannot fill the classrooms with school children, certainly we can fill them with community groups, recreational programs, social service departments, and other civic agencies and partners.”
He’s right. Plus, many of these schools are beautiful, historic gems, long at the heart of their community. People have fond memories of their local schools. Many schools house daycares and after-school programs. Shutting down the school risks massive disruption.
In my hometown of Bradford West Gwillimbury (a rapidly suburbanising farming community just south of Barrie), the historic local high school is up for divestment by the board. The local mayor and council wants to buy the old school property, with options for use ranging from a municipal office to affordable housing units for seniors. The capital costs of renovations are a hindrance the town is considering accepting; the real estate costs are a bridge too far.
The requirement that cities, towns and other public institutions should have to pay “fair market value” is cumbersome and impractical. The requirement should be changed. We should want to allow for creative partnerships between public institutions to keep these facilities in public ownership and use. We should welcome arrangements where a school sells a property like the Old Bradford High School to the town, in exchange for, say, the town taking over maintenance of all the school fields in town for the next number of years. Let the school board and the other public institution sort out their own, mutually beneficial quid pro quo.
Limited by having their power to levy taxes and much of their role in education policy subsumed by the Ministry, school boards are micromanaging, rule-obsessed nitpickers. Nonetheless, the Minister can, by the stroke of her pen, open up the process and allow for creative solutions so that these schools can remain community assets.
*Jonathan Scott sat on the Ministry of Education’s Partnership Table as vice-president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association.
Originally published on theglobeandmail.com