Small-town and rural Ontario leaders want a reprieve from school closings

Originally posted on The Chatham Daily News:

By Kelly Pedro
April 21, 2014

Small-town and rural Ontario mayors want school closings halted until after a review of a widely-criticized process used to weed out doomed schools.

A motion recently passed by Penetanguishene — its only high school has been on the chopping block for eight years — is gaining steam, including in Southwestern Ontario, adding to the call for the province to impose a school-closing moratorium. Civic leaders hope to make the debate an issue in Ontario’s next election, widely expected this spring.

“It’s timing right now,” said Penetanguishene Mayor Gerry Marshall. He said he’d like to see school trustees, municipalities and the province talk after an election about how to address rural communities facing school closings.

Deeply divisive, Ontario has dealt with a generation of school closings driven by falling enrolment, with even more expected as the province removes the top-up funding support it provides to keep many of its about 600 half-empty schools alive.

But with Premier Kathleen Wynne’s minority Liberals facing a May 1 budget that may not pass, triggering an election, worried groups are racing against the clock.

“The frustration right now is there’s a sense of urgency by the existing school boards and sitting trustees to clear the decks,” said Marshall.

“The time to close schools and have that conversation is not when you have three political clocks ticking.”

He’s led the latest charge to put a stop to school closings and has allies in the mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake, head of the Ontario Small Urban Municipalities Association; Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft, who chairs an alliance of communities that have fought rural school closings for years; and London and Waterloo researchers studying the fallout of school closings.

“We have no evidence of the financial savings. There’s been no research done of any savings,” said Bill Irwin of Huron University College, who’s studying how closings affect communities and neighbourhoods, especially those trying to revitalize.

“There may be some short-term fiscal savings, maybe, but the long-term cost to human, social, community capital — we haven’t accounted for any of that,” he said.

Irwin said he’ll be in Hamilton next month, a city considering a moratorium on school closings.

Ontario has lost more than 100,000 students over the last decade, triggering hundreds of school closings and mergers.

Hundreds more could face the axe, with about 600 half-empty schools getting by on top-up funding from the province that Education Minister Liz Sandals says will be withdrawn if school don’t use at least 65% of their space.

Sandals has also said changes are coming to the process under which schools weeded out for possible closing or mergers are put before community review panels that make recommendations — not binding — to school boards.

Critics contend those panels — called accommodation review committees — often pit neighbourhoods against one another, and drag out school deaths for months, even years at a time, satisfying few.

A former MPP and teacher, Reycraft said kids need to figure larger in the equation.

“What seems to be lost on school board trustees is the fact that while the schools may belong to the board, the children — the students that are in them — belong to the community and they need to pay more attention to what communities believe to be best for their students than they have done in recent years,” he said. “

They are their schools, but they are our kids.”

Before 2003, boards could close schools with little public input. Then came a three-year moratorium on closings, followed by the new guidelines that included consultation for at least seven months before shutting a school.

Sandals has said a group of board administrators from across Ontario is studying the process and will recommend changes this spring, to be in place by the fall.