I sat in a ‘Modified Accommodation Meeting’ for my secondary school today, as it’s slated to close due to Premier Wynne’s new funding formula for school boards. There are hundreds of these meetings going on across the province this fall. So many, in fact, that in my mind it should be dominating Ontario media, but it’s not. There has been considerable local media coverage on the topic, but minimal provincial interest…..so far. This needs to change.
It’s not a pretty picture: Ontario schools are set to close at alarming rates, through shady new legislation created just for this purpose.
As reported by @globeandmail in a April 2015 article, Ontario moves to speed up process for closing schools, the province has created new legislation to “speed up the process for closing schools, as part of a crackdown on publicly funded boards with too many classrooms sitting empty.”
The new process for accommodation review has a shorter time limit, fewer public meetings and rests the decisions for school closures solely on the shoulders of school trustees. Scary stuff.
What is more troubling is the fact that: “another major change causing considerable angst for municipal officials is a shift in emphasis toward student achievement and away from considering the impact of closing a school on the well-being of a community and the local economy.”
The government has termed this the School Board Efficiencies and Modernization Strategy, and essentially that means that they are limiting funding to boards that have empty spaces, and forcing them to downsize or offset operating costs through some other manner.
As we all know, the Liberals have destroyed the coffers in Ontario through their scandals and wasteful spending, and now they’re scrambling to replenish them.
Birth rates are also declining, thus school populations are dwindling. Add the pressure of schools built in the baby boom era needing refurbishing and maintenance to the mix, as well as the government’s ongoing labour issues with teachers and support staff and you have a absolute financial mess.
Ms. Wynne’s answer to solve this problem is to close buildings. Lots of them. In the realm of education they warmly refer to this as “reducing empty space.” It sounds much better than destroying communities by closing the glue that binds them.
They have chosen this path, of course, instead of actually looking at another major fiscal problem with education in Ontario – the fact that we have four school boards and a chasm of wasted administration costs because of this system.
This ‘strategy’, is specifically targeted at community schools. Often, these schools are the ones hit hardest by dwindling enrolment or economic factors that have caused a decline in population (such as a mine or automotive plant closing).
These types of schools are ones we all know, and many have called home. Community schools that hold Christmas craft fairs, host zumba for local seniors and fall dances for alumni that fly in from across the country because they still care that much about the school that built them. Schools that have a football team that may not have won many games last season, but that the entire town comes out to cheer for on cold, damp Friday nights. Schools that have teaching staffs that haven’t changed in 20 years because those teachers have invested their lives in the schools, have watched generations pass them by, and whose own children have walked their halls.
In the Rainbow District School Board, two such community high schools are on the chopping block: Lively District Secondary School and Chelmsford Valley District Composite School, as well as handful of elementary schools scattered across the municipality.
In the Upper Canada District School Board, the @cbc reports that: “twenty nine schools in small towns and rural areas of Eastern Ontario could close if trustees vote to accept the recommendations of staff at the Upper Canada District School Board.”
The aforementioned are only two examples of school boards cornered into the process of ‘consolidation’. It is unfortunately a sad pattern being played out across the province in many school districts.
Schools are an integral part of any community, but especially small communities. They are more than educational institutions: community hubs for various social groups, social networking sites for community events and sites for athletic activities both associated and independent of the school. As part of the grand scheme of the social web that is community they are an essential element that significantly effects other aspects of community life.
These smaller schools allow for better teacher-student ratios and smaller student bodies in general, which contribute to a sense of belonging and family – something that is essential for all students, but especially for those who may be struggling.
Students at smaller schools can walk to school or take short bus rides, participate in extra curricular activities locally and have local part time jobs. Busing them to larger schools would all but eliminate these possibilities for students in small communities.
Community schools also have a major economic impact on housing values, local businesses and local employment. When you pull the plug on a community school, there are significant economic ramifications that will follow.
The (possible) Solutions
So what can be done other than closing community schools by the truckload?
Since “extra space” in educational institutions in Ontario is such a widespread problem, one would think it should require more dialogue between vested steak holders and the province rather than simply leaving school boards in the lurch to come up with local solutions voted in by a handful of trustees. Is this really what they want school board administrators focusing on for the duration of a school year? What about who they should be focusing on – the students in their board!
The Wynne government could have a variety of solutions at their fingertips if they actually took the heat for their improper fiscal management and inability to foresee major demographic problems with educational institutions in the province by making viable solutions to the public through dialogue with school boards, teachers, parents and community partners. But, hey they’re busy selling Hydro One so who has time for that?
For example, in the town of Lively (where LDSS is up for closure review) there is a Police Service, a Medical Clinic, Post Office and Service Ontario office that rent space in various local mini malls. Would a logical idea not be to house all these government services with another government service (education) in the same building? School boards do not have the power to make this happen but the province does. Sure, perhaps they can gather one or two local services into community buildings, but only the province has the power to mandate something this innovative and widespread.
Another idea would be to force competing school boards into one building, thus keeping community schools open and creatively collaborating the vested interests of each independent school board. An example of this is in Chelmsford (where CVDCS is up for closure review) there is another small, local high school in the community but it is part of the French Catholic School Board. Neither school is close to full, yet each service a separate part of the community due to language preferences. Why can they not share a building under a provincial mandate to do so, thus keeping a local high school viable for all residents, regardless of their first language? Once again, local school boards can attempt to make this happen, but who wants to share their school building if they don’t have to regardless of the space available? Only the province can force such a new, collaborative relationship with competing school boards in the same community.
A final option would be to open up the extra space in schools as retail or office space, again, to gather community resources in one place. This would also benefit students as this interaction could give them opportunities for cooperative education and/or part time jobs. This is an option that school boards could take on as a solution, but again there may be liability or other issues that would possibly need provincial intervention before they become a reality.
Many school boards, including the Rainbow board are considering these options through public meetings, but in reality they don’t have the power or authority to allow some of these innovative ideas to flourish without the heavy hand of the province. In this era of innovation and collaboration one would think our provincial government would have more foresight and problem solving abilities beyond passing the buck.
The Final Word
There is no denying the financial problems in the Ontario education system, but they are not new. Closing community schools is not the solution to this problem;it will drastically change the landscape and culture of rural Ontario.
It will cause a decline in student achievement for those students now sitting on buses for hours a day, tired and disenfranchised – unable to participate in extra-curricular activities or local part time jobs.
It will destroy community social networks – ripping at the fabric that binds local events, social engagements and pride.
It will cause economic decline in rural Ontario – driving down real estate markets, closing businesses and forcing workers to travel further for employment.
In my 21st century classroom, I teach my students to use the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving to weigh problematic issues and make logical, rational solutions. Ironically, 21st century ‘skills’ are all the rage at the Ministry of Education. It’s unfortunate that the Wynne government cannot follow this practice that they preach. Shame on them.
What can you do?
Show the Liberal government and your local school board that community schools matter!
Write or call the Minister of Education: https://news.ontario.ca/profiles/en/mitzie-hunter?_ga=1.247940737.78829898.1476762466
Write or call your member of parliament: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members
Write or call your local MPP: http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/members/members_current.do?locale=en
Write or call your local school trustee (Rainbow D.S. B. listed here): http://www.rainbowschools.ca/board/trustees/
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