The planning perspective

Beamsville District Secondary School, Ontario

The role of schools in the community

Schools educate our children; they are also an important part of the community’s fabric. School closure is a fact of life in many Canadian communities. Older, smaller schools in the inner city are especially vulnerable. The impacts of school closure on students, families and neighbourhoods are significant and often avoidable. Community residents and other stakeholders invariably respond with shock, disbelief, then anger, resentment and resistance that takes various forms.

There are few cases where school closures could be considered a positive experience for all involved, including school board trustees and staff. School closures are inherently confrontational in nature; however, the school closure review process often makes a very difficult situation worse.

The prevailing and popular rationale for closures seems to be fiscal prudency. The standard facility review process requires school boards to calculate the cost of renovating older against building a new facility. In many cases, it appears to be more economically prudent to build new schools. This favours building new facilities in the suburbs. Consequently, schools in older neighbourhoods are closed.

Planning and school closures

Urban planners are concerned about the destabilizing impacts from these closures on community plans for downtown revitalization, reurbanization generally, and neighbourhood renewal. In Ontario, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board’s recent and controversial decision to close an inner city high school – Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS) in Peterborough, ON and one of Canada’s oldest schools, highly regarded for its programs – seems to have followed this worrisome path. There are many other examples of this trend in Canada, such as the recent decision to close the equally historic Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI) in Kingston, ON and, indeed, the United States.

Flaws in the decision-making process account for some of the reasons for controversial closure decisions. A key issue concerns the nature of school closure decision-making processes that are minimally consultative, in the narrow sense that residents have opportunities to voice their opinions. These processes are not fully participatory and they are rarely partnership based.

We argue that school board decision-making processes could benefit from knowledge and application of lessons learned by urban planners. Indeed, municipal-level urban planning practice integrates constructive and collaborative decision-making models – approaches that focus on education of stakeholders, respect for diverse values and views, identify and advance the public interest, and shared responsibility for decision-making. Ideally, meaningful participation leads to more informed decisions. In the event that schools are closed, community residents and other school stakeholders could at least gain a better understanding of the decision context and feel they were heard.

Our position from a planning perspective

We argue that school boards need to recognize the community social, economic and environmental impacts of school closure when designing accommodation review processes. There is a need to explore opportunities for innovative use of planning and design tools. There is a need to understand the many roles that schools play in a community. And, it is time to acknowledge the many problems that are associated with maintenance of the status quo in our governance system that discourages collaboration and cooperation between school board and local government.

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